Travel Health Update: The 2 Viruses You Should Know (That Aren’t Zika)

It used to be that traveling to remote locations increased your chances of getting sick. Not anymore.
It used to be that traveling to remote locations increased your chances of getting sick. Not anymore. (Photo credit: Sudiono Muji via Unsplash.)

There are always reasons to be scared off from traveling, if you look hard enough. And these days, for better or worse, you don’t even have to look hard. A single terror attack can render an entire continent off-limits to travelers. (Though it shouldn’t, as our Daniela Harrison points out.) A plane crash can do the same, and a cruise ship that loses power for a day can cause thousands of travelers to hit the pause button on their cruise plans. Right now the media is aflame with zika, the latest insect-borne illness to sweep across continents, with affected areas growing as the temperatures rise.

There’s no question zika is a concern, as doctors and researchers learn more about its spread and its effects. (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has all the latest, hype-free information on zika here.) But – and not to sound the alarm heedlessly – travelers need to recognize that there are other insect-borne diseases besides zika that are likewise on the rise.

This fact was brought home in the latest edition of Travel Weekly magazine’s excellent annual travel editors’ roundtable. In response to a question about zika, Nathan Lump, Travel + Leisure’s editor-in-chief, answered, “I’m not trying to minimize zika, but the chikungunya virus hasn’t gotten near the attention that zika has, and it has the potential to be a bigger problem for a larger number of people.”

Answering the same question, Monica Drake, travel-section editor at The New York Times, said, “Again, not to minimize zika, but dengue fever is more widespread and probably a greater risk to more travelers.”

Dengue? Chikungunya? What are they? Here’s what you need to know about these diseases, where they’re found, and how you can protect yourself.

Dengue: None of these diseases are really new, but dengue fever has been on medical researchers’ radar screens the longest. The CDC has known about dengue since the ‘50s, but it has only become a real public-health hazard since around 2000. Dengue is a virus borne by the Aedes mosquito (the same mosquito that transmits Zika). While it causes a severe fever that can last for two to seven days, with other symptoms that are associated with a high, persistent fever, it also can cause bleeding behind the eyes, nosebleeds, and easy bruising. In its most severe form, dengue can cause complete failure of the circulatory system and death.

Dengue is a particular problem in Puerto Rico, though it first came to prominence through an outbreak in Hawaii in 2001 that sickened thousands. It has also been found and diagnosed in Mexico, every Caribbean country, across southern Asia, and throughout South America except for Argentina and Chile.

There’s no real treatment for dengue, though acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) can ease symptoms. The best way to treat dengue is not to get it in the first place, which for travelers means either liberal application of mosquito repellent or avoiding travel to, in the CDC’s words, “most tropical urban areas of the world.”

Chikungunya: Spread by the same mosquito as dengue and Zika as well as a mosquito more commonly found in the Midwest and East Coast, chikungunya is a virus with symptoms more akin to Lyme disease than the bleeding of dengue or the birth defects of Zika. According to the CDC, “people infected with chikungunya virus typically develop fever and joint pain,” though the pain can be severe and long-lasting, and even disabling in some cases.

Chikungunya has been found on almost every Caribbean island, in Mexico, and across most of northern South America, in addition to parts of Africa, southern Asia and Polynesia.

What’s been said about zika and dengue applies to chikungunya: there is no cure and no vaccine, and the only ways of preventing the disease is to liberally apply mosquito repellent and avoid the areas where the virus is found.

Obviously, there’s a third path: eliminate the mosquitoes. If there is a silver lining in the dark cloud created by these viruses, it’s the recognition of the need to eliminate standing water and other prime mosquito-breeding habitat. It sounds simple, but a concerted mosquito-eradication effort takes time and money. The CDC is actually spearheading this effort – not just in the United States but across the Western Hemisphere. With some luck, some time, some resources, and continued research all three of these diseases may soon be things of the past … to be replaced by whatever the next travelers’ scourge may be.

Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.