Some Canadians may be thinking twice about heading to southern destinations this winter as the threat of contracting the mosquito-borne Zika virus buzzes up north.
The World Health Organization announced last January that the virus was “spreading explosively” in the southern hemisphere of the Americas, and 4 million people could be infected by the end of the year.
In August, some sports celebrities, their fans and journalists from around the world opted to stay away from the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, due to the fear of catching the virus. Now, Canadians making their winter travel plans may flag parts of Central America and other South American countries, as well as the Caribbean and U.S. sunshine states.
It’s too early to tell what effect Zika fears have had on travel bookings, says Adam Francis, marketing director of Expedia Canada. “When it comes to the Zika virus, Expedia advises travellers to visit the Government of Canada or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention websites for the latest information regarding travel to areas affected.
On its website the CDC states: “Men who have traveled to a place with Zika should wait at least 6 months after travel (or 6 months after symptoms started if they get sick) before trying to conceive with their partner. Women should wait at least 8 weeks after travel (or 8 weeks after symptoms started if they get sick) before trying to get pregnant. The waiting period is longer for men because Zika stays in semen longer than in other body fluids.”
“Expedia is keeping up to date with supply partners on their policies, and should any traveller feel their plans are directly impacted, we encourage them to visit our customer service information page on Expedia.ca or call for assistance at 1-800-469-1793.”
A Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada consumer survey released Oct. 25 found that 14 per cent of the people polled who were planning pregnancies decided to opt for vacations to Europe, parts of the U.S. and Canada over tropical destinations where the Zika Virus posed a health threat, and 35 per cent decided to cancel their travel plans altogether due to fears of infection.
With memories of outbreaks close to home, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, and the West African Ebola virus south of the border in 2014 still vivid in our national consciousness, the Zika virus, carried by the Aedes mosquito species, is the latest disease from abroad that northern travellers have to fear.
In Miami, the virus has recently been found to be spread by mosquito bites, and southern states from Florida to Texas are on high alert as the virus spreads. The virus is also known to be sexually transmitted via human blood, urine, semen and saliva. It can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus and cause birth defects and miscarriages.
Canada’s public healthagency recommends pregnant women and those planning a pregnancy avoid travel to areas such as south Florida, as well as other regions and countries where the Zika virus has been found.
There is no vaccine, medicine or cure for Zika, but the first international study to develop a vaccine for the virus is being undertaken at Université Laval in Quebec City, with the participation of Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
As of Nov. 3, there were 4,128 Zika virus cases reported across the U.S., some have been infected by sexual partners and there have even been cases of infection from contact with family members and caregivers of people infected with the virus. In Canada there have been 359 travel-related cases stemming from mosquito bites reported by Nov. 3, as well as two sexually transmitted cases and two maternal-to-fetal transmission infections reported.
Although the risks of contracting the virus are much lower in the winter months in Zika-affected regions, there is still some risk, so the following precautions should be taken:
- Avoid areas known to be infested with Zika-borne mosquitoes, which mostly bite during the day as opposed to the species that commonly bite in the evening.
- Wearing long-sleeved tops and pants, and shoes instead of sandals, reduces the risk of all mosquito bites.
- Air-conditioned areas closed off by screened doors are usually safe, mosquito-free zones.Using an insect repellent after applying sun block greatly reduces the chances of being bitten, as does using mosquito netting when sleeping or relaxing.Practising safe sex with the use of condoms reduces the likelihood of contracting the virus, as does avoiding physical contact with someone who is known to be infected.