Although a lot has changed since the Zika outbreak in 2015-16, Zika is still a concern for some travelers.
What’s Changed with Zika Since 2015-16?
The good news is that there were no reported cases of local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission in the continental U.S. in 2018 or 2019. There are also several clinical trials in progress that are investigating a vaccine, according to Dr. Ashley Lipps, an infectious disease physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. But currently, there is no specific antiviral medication that has proven to be successful.
Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, advises that “the circulation of the virus has gone down since its peak in this hemisphere [Western] as so many were infected in the first waves, that immunity in the population is high. It will continue to be a threat in the future though as the requisite mosquito populations are in place in many areas and there is no vaccine.” He also notes that vaccine development is ongoing but could take years.
Last year, the CDC updated its labeling system so you can tell if a country either has a current Zika outbreak, has ever reported Zika cases (past or current), has a low likelihood of Zika infection because of high elevation, has a mosquito type that carries Zika but no Zika cases, or has no mosquitos that spread Zika.
Check out the map on the CDC’s website to see where the virus has been active or search for specific destinations.
I Have Travel Plans to an Area That Had/Has Reported Zika Cases …
If you’re healthy and not currently pregnant, there is no reason for you to avoid travel to a destination that at one point in time reported local transmission of Zika. However, it’s recommended that you take certain precautions, like mosquito-bite prevention and having only protected sex, both during and after your travels. There is currently no vaccine or medication for the virus, so mosquito-bite prevention is key. Using EPA-registered insect repellents, covering exposed skin, wearing light-colored clothing, sleeping inside or in screened-in rooms, and wearing pre-treated clothing and gear can help prevent bites. Read full information on traveling and Zika here.
Currently, the only travel notice from the CDC is a Level 2 – Practice Enhanced Precautions warning for travelers to areas with a Zika outbreak (red areas on the map). As of January 2020, there are no areas with a current Zika outbreak.
If you are trying to get pregnant, or your partner is trying to get pregnant, then you may want to reconsider travel because of the virus’s link to birth defects and complications. View the above embedded information from the CDC for the most up-to-date information or read more on Zika and pregnancy here.
Dr. Lipps echoes this advice, ”It is recommended that pregnant women avoid travel to areas with Zika virus due to the risk of severe birth defects associated with infection. Women who are trying to become pregnant should discuss risks with their health care provider prior to travel. Because the virus can be detected in semen for several weeks after infection, couples who travel to Zika affected areas should use condoms/abstain from sex for at least three months after travel. Many cases of Zika are asymptomatic so this recommendation is for everyone, not just those who felt ill or were diagnosed with Zika virus infection while abroad. If a woman travels to an affected area without her male partner, the recommendation is to wait two months prior to trying to conceive.”
Note that you can purchase travel insurance with a “cancel for any reason” clause so you’re protected if more information comes to light or you change your mind about your trip.
If you’re thinking about becoming pregnant outside of the time frame suggested by the CDC (two to three months depending on your situation) after exposure to a Zika-carrying mosquito, then there is reassuring information from the CDC: “Current evidence suggests that Zika infection prior to pregnancy would not pose a risk of birth defects to a future pregnancy. From what we know about similar infections, once a person has been infected with Zika virus, he or she is likely to be protected from a future Zika infection. Currently, we do not have a test to tell if someone is protected against Zika virus.”
Dr. William Spangler, Global Medical Director with AIG Travel reminds us that many people only experience mild symptoms with the Zika virus and you may not know that you have contracted it; “For those that contract the virus, they might feel like they have nothing more than a cold that lasts 2-3 days. So if you come home from an area with Zika risk and experience symptoms like these, it might be worth getting tested specifically for Zika antibodies.”
Where Can You Go If You Want to Avoid Zika in 2020?
There are still plenty of vacation-worthy destinations to visit if you’re looking to travel somewhere without any reported Zika cases. Tourist hot spots that don’t have the type of mosquito that carries Zika include Alaska, Bermuda, Morocco, Canary Islands, Canada, Mauritius, New Zealand, Chile, Azores, Seychelles, and most of Europe.
Dr. Spangler recommends that “For those who want to exercise the utmost in caution, I would advise that they avoid the Caribbean, South America, Central America and Southeast Asia.” He also notes that “conditions have certainly improved in each of the countries with recent Zika cases; the risk is just not what it was four years ago … by way of comparison, cases of other insect-borne viruses, like Dengue fever or Chikungunya, are more numerous, now, than Zika cases.”
Dr. Kacey Ernst, Associate Professor and Program Director at the University of Arizona’s Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department adds, “Think about the specific areas and times you want to travel to better assess your risk. Higher-altitude areas tend to have fewer mosquitoes. In addition, check out the season: Is it during or near the rainy season? That is often when the transmission of mosquito-borne viruses is highest. Try to get rooms on higher floors if possible, and check the screens on the windows or just keep them closed to avoid bringing the mosquitos in the room. It is important to note that Ae. aegypti likes being around people and is quite happy to live inside as well as outside. Even in areas where Zika is no longer being transmitted, the Ae. aegypti mosquito can also transmit dengue and chikungunya.”
For the most up-to-date information, prevention tips, or what to do post-travel to a Zika country, always check the CDC’s website.
What to Pack for Zika Prevention While Traveling
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- 5 Diseases in America You Could Get While Traveling
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Some quotes have been edited for clarity.