Travellers Guide To Zika Virus Affected Areas

In a rare move, the World Health Organization has declared its fourth public health emergency. The disease in question is Zika. It’s transmitted via mosquitos, and originated in subtropical African regions. It’s the World Health Organisation’s second public health emergency in as many years. In 2014, it declared an emergency with regard to the spread of Ebola. Ebola wreaked havoc on travellers. Now Zika is having a similar effect on expats in Mexico, Brazil, and other parts of the globe.

Until last year, Zika was a disease confined almost exclusively to subtropical Africa and small parts of Asia. Scientists discovered it in 1947 where it originated in Uganda. However, in May of last year, the disease was found in a patient in Brazil. An outbreak swiftly followed, and Zika is now spreading to all corners of the globe. Although most patients contract the disease while travelling, some have contracted it on home soil. The virus itself does not kill, and symptoms are relatively mild. So why has the WHO declared an emergency? Well, it’s thought that Zika leads to abnormal births when contracted by pregnant women.

What exactly is the Zika virus?

Much like dengue, yellow fever, and West-Nile virus, Zika is transmitted by mosquitoes. Specifically, it is carried by the Aegus Genus mosquito. Originating in Africa, there have been only a few reported cases outside the Uganda region. Small pockets have appeared in Asia and the Pacific Islands, but not in any worrying manifestation. In May 2015, however, an outbreak occurred in Brazil. Since very few have immune defences against this African virus, it has now spread to more than a million people in the Americas. The enormous majority are infected by mosquitoes. However, there are concerns that the disease can also be transmitted sexually.

What are the symptoms?

Strangely, only one in five people with the virus present active symptoms. The rest show no symptoms, and suffer no long-term health problems. If symptoms do present themselves, patients typically break out in a mild fever. They may experience a bumpy, red rash and conjunctivitis in the eyes. In extreme cases, patients may experience a temporary paralysis after exposure to the virus. There have been no deaths so far.

Why has Zika become an international health emergency?

You might wonder why Zika has been declared an international health emergency when there are zero deaths. The reason is the suspected link between Zika and microcephaly. Microcephaly is a birth abnormality in babies where their heads are smaller than usual. It’s a form of brain damage, and scientists are still learning about the link. Although Zika is relatively harmless on its own, the effect on pregnant women and their children could be devastating. In Brazil, for example, there were only 167 cases of microcephaly in 2013. In the last six months alone (since Zika broke out), there have been 4,200 cases.

Microcephaly

The birth defect is a relatively uncommon problem, especially in the developed world. In some cases, the defect is lethal at birth, while in others symptoms are less severe. In 15% of microcephaly cases, the small head presents no brain damage at all. However, in all others, it means the brain has not developed properly during pregnancy. This will lead to learning and developmental problems. Much like Zika itself, there is no cure or treatment for Microcephaly.

How has Zika spread so fast?

Zika is transmitted by the Aegus Genus mosquito. Many of which are found throughout South America. They are also found in the Caribbean, Florida, and the Gulf Coast. Some scientists claim that global warming is to blame. It has lead the mosquitoes to roam further into the Americas, bringing the disease with them. However, the biggest reason for this quick spread of Zika is international travel. The disease has quickly picked up pace in South America, and travellers have picked up the disease.

What are the main countries affected from the Zika Virus?

The main countries infected with the Zika virus were initially located in subtropical Africa. The likes of Uganda, Ethiopia, and DR Congo. There were also some reported cases in the Pacific Islands of Samoa and Tonga. However, the state of emergency was declared when the disease reached the Americas. The WHO now predicts that all American countries except Canada and Chile are at risk. The Caribbean, Mexico, and Brazil are particularly vulnerable areas. This is due to their favourable mosquito climate.

What about elsewhere across the globe?

Thanks to international travel, the disease has begun to infiltrate other corners of the planet. The first pregnant woman in Australia has just been diagnosed with Zika. 21 others in the Brisbane area are also thought to have contracted the virus. In every case, the virus has been the result of international travel. In total, there are now 32 infected countries, including the Maldives and Thailand in the Indian Ocean.

How can travellers and expats avoid the disease?

The World Health Organization is advising that pregnant women avoid the major Zika regions. This includes Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, and most parts of the Caribbean. Anyone with any concerns about Zika should avoid the area, but pregnant women are most vulnerable. The most worrying aspect of Zika is that there is no cure or treatment. If you’re an expat in Brazil or the affected countries, the best defence is avoiding mosquito bites. Wear long clothes, spray yourself with insect repellent, and sleep under mosquito nets. Always wear barrier contraceptives while in a Zika-infected country, and for at least 28 days after you return.

Tests for travellers and expats in Zika infected areas

If you are in, or have returned from, a Zika infected region, there is a molecular blood test available. If you are pregnant, then visit your doctor immediately, even if you show no signs of symptoms. Remember, only 1 in 5 present active symptoms. The blood test is only accurate within one week of contracting the virus. If you want to find out about any lasting effects on your child, an ultrasound will only show signs of microcephaly in the second trimester. Zika is terrifying because of its invisibility, so take action immediately.

Article written by Expatriate Healthcare, a leading provider of international medical insurance for those living and working abroad. Expatriate Healthcare are devoted to providing expats with a competitive worldwide healthcare solution for individuals, families and corporate groups.