Monday-Morning Moving: Z Is For Zika (Still)

(Photo credit: Boris Smokrovic via Unsplash.)

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but it is Monday. And it’s raining.

Beyond that, the other piece of bad news we have to pass along is that Zika has not gone away. Not at all.

Remember Zika? If you were thinking about traveling anywhere warm a year ago at this time, Zika was your No. 1 travel concern. The mosquito-borne virus was in the Caribbean, in Mexico, in the South Pacific, along the Gulf Coast, in South America casting another pall over the Rio Olympics.

Zika’s symptoms were mild, but its effects were potentially disastrous for anyone who was pregnant or wanting to become pregnant. Zika was linked to a severe birth defect called microcephaly, and as the summer wore on the virus became more menacing. It was found to be transmissible via sexual contact. It was found to contribute to other conditions. And it was spreading – into Florida, Texas, and other continental U.S. locations.

Now that we’re almost two years into Zika, what do we know, and what do travelers need to bear in mind as mosquito season kicks into high gear?

Zika is more widespread than ever.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Zika is currently found in all of Central America and the Caribbean, all of South America except for Chile and Uruguay, a broad swath of Central Africa from Cape Verde to Tanzania, India and the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Malaysia, New Guinea, Indonesia, Polynesia, and the Philippines. There have been confirmed U.S. cases in Texas and Florida, though there is fear that the virus could spread through much of the southern United States this summer. “It’s really not possible to predict what we are going to see in the U.S.,” the CDC’s Margaret Honein told National Public Radio. “If it’s going to be a lot of transmission or a small amount of transmission, we just need to be ready to do everything we can.”

Zika is more complex than originally thought.

Honein told NPR that we’re still learning more about the virus every day. It’s not just a simple virus that causes a small range of symptoms and issues. Like many viruses, Zika is made up of complex proteins that require cutting-edge technology to identify and crack. The good news is that progress is being made on that front. The bad news? It’s slow going.

What Zika causes isn’t entirely clear.

A different NPR report looked at research published in the New England Journal of Medicine that examined why Zika cases in Brazil among pregnant women went up in 2016 compared to 2015, but cases of microcephaly actually went down. The research floated a number of possible explanations: Zika was initially being confused with chikungunya (which we reported on in a previous post), or perhaps more menacingly, Zika was combining with dengue, another tropical virus, to create more serious issues. And the CDC has found a wide range of possible birth issues, from vision and hearing problems to joint pain. As Honein said, “We’re learning more every day about the range of the birth defects.”

Prevention is still the key.

The best way to not get Zika is to not travel to affected regions if you’re pregnant or planning to have a baby, but if that’s just not feasible, mosquito repellent is your best option. And remember: Put the repellent on over the sunscreen, not the other way around.

A vaccine may be on the way.

Researchers have begun Phase 2 testing of a potential Zika vaccine. The two-stage testing will involve more than 2,400 volunteers, and if successful, could lay the groundwork for the third and final phase of testing, with full-scale implementation to follow, perhaps as early as next year. However, success in Phase 2 testing opens up the possibility of using the vaccine in emergency-outbreak situations.  Either way, researchers are hopeful they’ve cracked the Zika code and an effective vaccine will arrive soon.

Remember: Most travel insurance won’t cover you if you cancel a trip because you’re afraid of getting Zika. Calculate your Zika risk before you travel – and if you then decide to go, rely on Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection for quick-paying, full-featured coverage.

Travel safe!

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.