6 things every traveler should know about the Zika virus

What Zika Virus Is — and Isn't
What Zika Virus Is — and Isn't

If there's one thing we know about travelers, it's that they have a lot on their minds. And who can blame them? From terrorist attacks to travel warnings in popular vacation destinations across the globe, there's plenty to cause concern for the wanderlust crowd among us.

Sadly, the Zika virus is merely the latest alarm bell for travelers. If you're wondering whether it's a smart idea to modify your plans in light of recent outbreaks, here's what you need to know.
What are the latest developments?

The White House has requested $1.8 billion in emergency funding from Congress to combat the virus. A Reuters/lpsos poll released on Feb. 8 found that 41 percent of travelers say they're less likely to travel to Latin America and the Caribbean. And according to the poll, two-thirds of Americans have now heard of the virus, up from 45 percent in January.

Most of the concern surrounds pregnant women and birth defects. Brazil's eastern coast is ground zero for the virus, where officials say this year there have been 3,500 reported cases of microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with impaired brain development. That's up from 100 to 200 cases per year before the return of the virus last May. Zika first appeared in Uganda in 1947, but has largely been seen as a minor virus found in Africa and Asia. It was thought to have been eradicated until the recent outbreak of the mosquito-transmitted disease.

What countries are currently at risk?

The virus is spreading largely around warm-weather climates in Latin America and the Caribbean. The virus is carried by Aedes mosquitos, which tend to bite more frequently during the daytime. There is also some research that the virus can be spread through saliva or sexual activity, but for now, the main threat comes from being bit by a mosquito carrying the virus.

See photos of microcephaly caused by Zika:

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is thought to have been a major cause of the reappearance, as millions of fans worldwide descended on Brazil for the games. For this reason, there is a widespread concern that the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games could have the same impact (though Olympics organizers downplay the threat, pointing out that city workers are destroying breeding grounds and that the cool August temperatures will keep mosquitos away).

Beyond Brazil, there are more than 30 reported cases of Zika thus far in the U.S., all from travelers who returned from visits to infected countries. There are two kinds of Aedes mosquitos that could pose a risk to U.S. residents: the yellow fever Aedes and the Asian tiger Aedes. Researchers believe that Hawaii, Florida and destinations along the Gulf Coast are the only U.S. locales warm enough for the yellow-fever Aedes mosquito to thrive though the Zika-transmitting mosquitos have been found as far north as Washington, D.C. in extremely hot weather. Asian tiger mosquitos have also been found in northern cities, such as New York City and Chicago, in the summer.

That hasn't stopped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's command center from declaring a Level 1 alert – a status they have only reached three times: the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, the H1N1 flu crisis in 2009 and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The action not only raises attention for prevention of the virus spreading to the U.S. but also the need for resources to combat the spread of the virus.

What are the latest travel advisories?

Pregnant travelers are being advised to avoid travel to the Caribbean and Latin America region, where Zika is currently most prevalent. If you're pregnant and you've traveled to a country where Zika virus has been present in the past three months, the CDC recommends that you consult your doctor. If you've had a fever, rash, joint pain or blood shot eyes within two weeks after returning from traveling to an affected country, your doctor will run a blood test for the virus.

What are key symptoms of the virus?

In 80 percent of people infected, symptoms never show. But in the worst-case scenario, it's going to feel like the flu. According to health officials, symptoms will usually show between the third and seventh day the virus is in your body. Most people infected recover within seven days as the immune system clears the virus.

How can you prevent contracting the virus while traveling?

There is currently no treatment or vaccine against Zika. Researchers are confident they can develop a vaccine by the end of the summer, but for now, the best way to protect yourself is to carry mosquito nets and insect repellant with you if you are traveling to an infected country.

Should you cancel your trip?

A February survey conducted by the Travel Leaders Group, a heavyweight in the travel agent industry, showed that 93 percent of travel agents said they have had no cancelations from clients ages 60 and up. And when it comes to millennials, 74 percent of agents said they had no cancelations with travelers in their 20s and 30s.

"Armed with the facts, most travelers are opting to travel even as they heed expert advice for avoiding mosquito bites," said Nina Chacko, chief executive for the Travel Leaders Group.

Outside of mosquito protection, your best defense as a traveler is to purchase travel insurance. Policies usually run no more than $200 and can protect you against any calamity you may incur during travels, including illness.

If you've purchased a trip to affected countries and are too nervous to travel, most airlines –including Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines – are offering full refunds to fliers who booked flights to impacted countries.

The bottom line: If you're pregnant, avoid travel to Brazil and all impacted countries (the CDC is constantly updating that list here). For other destinations across Latin America and the Caribbean, the Zika threat is no more than any other peril that travelers face. Take precautions, but enjoy your trip.

See more on Zika in the gallery below:

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