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Yikes, what about Zika?

Mission Lazarus

We value that you are volunteering your time with us and want to protect you while with us.  Zika is similar to Dengue or Chikungunya; all three are viruses carried by mosquitoes with fairly similar symptoms and treatments:  

If you were to be infected with Zika, you may not exhibit any symptoms at all (most people infected with Zika do not even get clinically ill, as a healthy immune system clears the virus quickly) but for those who get clinically ill, you would experience mild fever, an angry skin rash, headache, conjunctivitis, and malaise within a few days of initial infection.  You would feel generically “not well.”  These symptoms could last 2-7 days, and there is no treatment other than symptom management, so - rest, hydration, and tylenol for discomfort.

What you need to know is:  how can I prevent getting Zika, and if I get Zika, how do I keep from spreading it to others?  So, the precautions are the same as they are for Chikungunya, Malaria and Dengue.... you want to avoid mosquito bites by wearing bug spray with DEET, and also by minimizing skin exposure (so, I'd wear pants and a light long sleeve shirt, versus short sleeves and skirts or capris.)  These mosquitoes are daytime biters so a mosquito net for night time is unnecessary to prevent Zika. 

The only travel advisory made currently by the CDC to travelers to Honduras or Haiti (or other parts of Central and South America) is to take precautions to avoid getting mosquito bites, and recommends special precautions for women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant: not to travel to any area below 6,500 feet.  (Because the type of mosquito that carries Zika does not live at high elevation.) 

The World Health Organization is slightly more conservative in that it recommends that pregnant women not travel to an endemic area due to an association of congenital disorders such as microcephaly when pregnant women become infected. 

Any couple who hopes to become pregnant should wait 6 months after either partner returns from Honduras or Haiti, as some studies have shown the presence of Zika in semen for up to 6 months after return from travel. 

I think it’s worth noting that we as news consumers allow media hysteria to cause us distress on nearly a daily basis.  Zika virus is not new; it has been around since the 1950s.  If we were to compare Zika to malaria, we can see that both are carried by mosquitos and are endemic to the tropics, but what is dissimilar is the death toll.  As Dr. Nicholis Comninellis points out in his blog

“ Over one million people die from malaria each year, mostly African children under five years of age, and some 300-600 million people suffer from often serious malaria illness each year. What’s more, the risk of miscarriage among pregnant women with malaria increases five-fold.  By contrast, human death from Zika has yet to be confirmed, and the connection with congenital disorders is less than substantiated…. We in the United States are essentially allowing media hype to set public policy: Our president, congress, and health agencies are suddenly pressing massive resources, $1.3 billion, against the Zika’s potential for dissemination, while US government funding for malaria intervention remains flat at $600 million.  What does this say about our rationale and priorities? What will we say to the families of the 3,000 people who died today from malaria? What will be our words to the infected mothers whose babies were lost in pregnancy? And to those tens of thousands, who at this moment are vomiting and convulsing from malaria, what will be our explanation over not devoting at least parallel resources to their needs?”

So basically, you don't need to prepare differently for your trip to Central America.  The same precautions travelers depend on to feel safe in areas endemic to malaria, Dengue, and Chikungunya will keep you relatively safe from Zika.  Avoid mosquitoes.  Befriend the gecko that cheeps in the night from the corner of your cabin.  We’ll see you soon!