Monday-Morning Moving: Z is for Zika

By Cat Zuniga

The Zika virus seems to be everywhere – in the newspapers, on the radio, on the internet, and in the bodies of many travelers returning from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

But what is the Zika virus anyway? And what does it mean for us?

In 1947, scientists working for the Rockefeller Foundation discovered the virus in a captive rhesus monkey (which has subsequently led to questions of whether Zika was actually created in the lab for experimental purposes).

After Zika’s discovery, transmission of the virus was extremely limited for decades. In fact, Zika didn’t really start spreading until after 2012, when a biotech company, Oxitec, released genetically modified  mosquitoes en masse in Brazil to combat dengue, a virus with similar symptoms spread by the same species of mosquitoes.

The genetically modified mosquitoes multiplied rapidly, and quickly broke out from sites where they had originally been released. As a result, Zika has now spread to 21 other countries and territories.

It’s easy to see how people could conclude that Zika is a bio-weapon, intentionally released via genetically modified mosquitoes – or, if it wasn’t intentionally released, that Zika was an unintended consequence of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment.

Now that we know where Zika came from, let’s look at what it does.

The virus can only be transmitted through bites from the Aedes mosquito. (While there are some indications that Zika can be passed via sexual contact, that association is still being investigated, and there’s not enough evidence to state that definitively.)

Once people are bitten, only about one in five actually become ill. The most common symptoms are characterized by, and mimic, that of a common cold or flu virus: fever, muscle pain, headache, and so forth. Symptoms are mild, and people do not usually get sick enough to even have to go to the hospital, though there is an association between Zika and Guillain-Barre syndrome, and a few cases where Zika apparently caused a person’s death.

An ocean view of Christiansted.
St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is one of the areas affected by Zika. (Sharyn Alden photo.)

The No. 1 thing Zika is associated with, and the main reason for the Zika scare, is a birth defect of the brain called microcephaly. More specifically, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “There have been reports of … microcephaly and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant.”

Zika remains in the bloodstream for about a week, but can be found longer in some people. There is absolutely no treatment for Zika. Companies are working on a vaccine for the virus to help prevent further cases. Right now the only way to treat it is to get plenty of rest, drink fluids to prevent dehydration, and take the typical medicines to relieve fever and pain. In addition, the CDC recommends sexual protection for men who have recently traveled to affected regions.

As of late last week, the CDC says the following countries or regions have reported Zika:

  • Cape Verde
  • The Caribbean (Barbados, Curaçao, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, U.S. Virgin Islands)
  • Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama)
  • Mexico
  • The Pacific Islands (American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga)
  • South America (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela)

As the newest health scare, Zika continues to make travelers think twice before venturing out on their vacations. But is it really something worth panicking over? Unless you and your partner are trying to get pregnant and/or already are, the Zika virus means absolutely nothing.

So how should you view travel to Zika-affected regions? In my opinion — and this is a non-medical opinion — I find some of the information out there to be quite deceiving. Many people are raising unnecessary or improper concerns, and some people are becoming nearly hysterical.

I’m certainly not going to suggest that you travel to any destination that raises health concerns without speaking to your physician — especially if you are pregnant or trying to conceive. Under those circumstances, you’d be best served by looking further into Zika, using highly reliable sources like the CDC, and making an educated decision before you cancel any vacation, or decide to cross off a country from your bucket list.

I like to prepare myself for the unknowns in life when I make a financial investment, so I cannot suggest strongly this enough: If you’re heading on a Caribbean cruise, or to Rio for the Olympics, or to Costa Rica for Spring Break, get travel protection! Talk to a travel professional and ask for advice. Protect your hard-earned money — don’t waste it!

Cat Zuniga is an award-winning travel specialist. She specializes in tropical vacations for families, groups, destination weddings, and honeymooners. Visit her today at http://www.TarverdiTravel.com.