Concerns over the Zika virus have World Health Organization officials thinking that the Olympic games in Brazil this year may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to latent transmissions and susceptibility. The mosquito-borne virus has already hit at least 61 countries and territories, and is feared now to be largely transmitted through sexual intercourse.
A Zika infection can lead to symptoms as mild as a rash, fever or joint pain. The virus has also been linked to microcephaly, a condition in which a baby has an abnormally small head and may struggle throughout their lifetime with a series of health issues ranging from vision problems to intellectual disabilities and seizures. Zika may cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can lead to paralysis or death. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention physician Alexandra M. Oster said infections passes from males to either male or female sexual partners when condoms are not in use. Men with Zika who never develop symptoms may also be able to pass the virus to their sexual partners because it remains in the semen longer than in blood.
“Men and their non-pregnant sex partners (couples) who want to reduce the risk for sexual transmission of Zika virus should use condoms consistently and correctly during sex or abstain from sex,” Oster writes. “Based on expert opinion and limited but evolving information about the sexual transmission of Zika virus, the recommended duration of consistent condom-use or abstinence from sex depends on whether men had confirmed infection or clinical illness consistent with Zika virus disease and whether men are residing in an area with active transmission.”
The WHO has not declared a general restriction on trips to Zika-affected areas, but in February, the organization said the spread of the virus was a worldwide emergency, and it recommends that pregnant women avoid traveling to locations where there are outbreaks.
“One thing that’s become challenging for the business and leisure traveler is that Zika has spread to a lot of areas where people travel, including the United States, and avoiding it is becoming more and more difficult,’’ says Daniel Durazo, spokesman for Allianz Global Assistance, USA in a statement, which provides travel insurance and other travel assistance to businesses as well as other clients. “I think people need to become aware of what the risks are and plan accordingly.’’
For travelers who are particularly vulnerable, or anyone who simply wants to be extra careful, there are precautions that can be taken.
“It’s a deep concern for travelers obviously, because any time you are in an area with poor sanitation or standing water, which is very common through Latin America, you’re potentially going to be subjected to this particular species of mosquito,’’ Brian McNary, vice president of the global risk group at Pinkerton, a corporate risk management firm, said in a statement. “First avoid areas of standing water — mud puddles, slow, sluggish moving rivers, public square fountains that are not really active and aerated. All of these present breeding grounds for the mosquito. That’s probably the first and foremost concern.”
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas said the best way to do avoid Zika is to take preventative measures seriously.
“You are going to have to go into community health centers and clinics and in everybody who has a fever and a rash you are taking a blood sample and testing it for Zika,” Hotez said. “It’s not like Ebola, where people will be dying in the streets. It’s what I call a delayed epidemic. The nightmare scenario is we miss it and seven, eight, nine months from now we see microcephaly cases showing up in the obstetric wards.”