We asked infectious disease researchers, “What would you do?”
Got a Caribbean vacation planned? Or a business trip to Sau Paulo? As worry over the mosquito-borne Zika virus ignites (you couldn’t escape the news alerts if you tried), you’re no doubt wondering whether you should rethink travel to affected areas.
Zika is the buzzword of the moment for a reason: Earlier this week the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a global health emergency, the first time it’s used such a classification since the Ebola outbreak in 2014. In the last nine months the Zika epidemic has spread to more than 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Several cases have been diagnosed in the U.S. in travelers who were infected while abroad, and just yesterday the CDC confirmed the first locally acquired case, which was transmitted by sex. Scary, yes. So should you cancel your upcoming travel?
There is, of course, the main worry, and why Zika has caused such a firestorm: the potential link between the virus and microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with abnormal brain development and unusually small heads. Experts have been calling it a “possible” link, but the evidence is mounting. On Feb. 1, the WHO director-general announced that experts agree “a causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven.”
But even if you’re not pregnant, you’re probably side-eying your plane ticket, thinking, Is this a mistake? After all there’s no Zika vaccine, no real treatment, and much about the virus is still unknown. For some guidance, we reached out to experts and asked for their personal advice.
If you’re a healthy adult
Good news: You can keep calm and carry on daydreaming about fruity drinks and coral reefs. “Personally, I don't plan on canceling my trip to the Dominican Republic,” says Rodney E. Rohde, PhD, chair and professor of clinical laboratory science at Texas State University. He’s worked through multiple disease outbreaks over the course of his two-decade career in public health. “That experience gives me perspective to look at the science first and understand if anything unusual is happening," he says.
Rebecca Christofferson, PhD, an infectious disease researcher and assistant professor of pathobiological sciences at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, agrees that healthy adults don’t need to change their plans. It’s good enough to take the precautions advised by the CDC to avoid mosquito bites, including using EPA-approved mosquito repellant, wearing pants and long-sleeved shirts, and sleeping in air-conditioned rooms. You can also call your hotel to ask if they’ve ramped up their mosquito control efforts, she suggests.
If you’re pregnant, or immunocompromised
In those cases, you might consider rescheduling out of an abundance of caution, says Christofferson. Same goes if you have little kids. “There are other diseases circulating in these areas—dengue and chikungunya—and as a mom of two, if my children were really young (less than a year), I would probably think twice about traveling to these areas, not only because of Zika but because of dengue and chikungunya too,” adds Christofferson.
For the record, the CDC advises that pregnant women avoid traveling to areas where Zika is spreading, a warning that Ricardo Lopez, MD, an ob-gyn at Orlando Health in Florida, echoes to his patients, including those hoping for a baby in the near future. He recently had a patient who's actively trying to get pregnant ask whether it was safe to go on her honeymoon in Mexico. "I told her, I'd rather you not go there," he says.
What if you’ve recently returned from a Caribbean vacay? Christofferson suggests waiting two weeks before you try to conceive, since experts aren’t sure exactly how long it takes to get sick and recover from the virus. Because Zika can be sexually transmitted, you should also consider your partner's recent travel, Christofferson adds. And if you’re just back from a babymoon in Costa Rica, talk to you ob-gyn because you should get screened to be safe.
The good news amid all the scary headlines: It’s unlikely that we’ll see a Zika outbreak here at home, says Christofferson. “I think we should appreciate the differences that make us maybe less susceptible to these mosquito-borne viruses than other places. Things like air conditioning, screens on the windows, vector-control in many places, and a public health system that is now on alert. These are the things that will keep the U.S. from seeing really robust transmission.”