It seems the whole world’s in a panic over the Zika outbreak—we’ve had a slew of friends back out of wedding engagements in Mexico this summer citing a fear of contracting the virus. But we’re loathe to cancel our own incredibly fun but potentially dicey vacation plans, so we thought best to brush up on the Zika threat and learn how safe or unsafe some popular escapes actually are. Here’s what we found.
Everything You Need To Know About Zika Before You Travel
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Zika was first discovered in 1947 and was named after the Zika Forest in Uganda.
Eighty percent of those affected will show no symptoms. Those who do may experience fever, rash, muscle and joint pain, headache, pain behind the eyes and itchy, red eyes. Duration of these symptoms is usually two to seven days after transmission. The illness is usually mild, but Zika infection during pregnancy can cause a birth defect called microcephaly as well as other severe fetal brain defects.
On February 1, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
This list of areas with active transmission is constantly updated, so check back before making any new travel plans.
Zika is known to be passed to humans by the bite of an infected aedes mosquito. According to the CDC, it's also transmitted sexually by infected males. (We don't yet know if it's transferred sexually by females.) A few days ago, scientists announced that it might be possible for Zika to spread via oral sex and possibly even through kissing.
New research points to a possible link between Zika infection and higher rates of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks nerves, causing muscle weakness and paralysis. Most people fully recover from GBS, though some experience permanent damage. One out of every 20 GBS patients dies. Cases of GBS linked to transmission of Zika are, at this point, still unusual.
Rare complications can also include internal bleeding, which caused the first Zika-related death in the US, in Puerto Rico.
Officials do not yet know at what point in pregnancy women are most vulnerable, why some women infected with Zika give birth to babies with microcephaly and others don't, or what other brain problems the virus might cause.
The CDC currently advises pregnant women to avoid traveling to areas where Zika is active.
As of now, however, risk of infection in the US is still low. The CDC currently recommends waiting eight weeks after any potential exposure to the virus to attempt conception. Some countries have suggested that women who've been infected with Zika put pregnancy on hold for as many as two years. If you're of childbearing age (but not currently pregnant) and have traveled to or will travel to an area where you're at risk for Zika infection, you may take some comfort in these words from Dr. Beth Bell, director of the CDC's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases: "If my daughter had gotten Zika two years ago and she wanted to get pregnant, I would say, 'Don’t worry.'"
The best way to avoid mosquito bites is to check out this list of repellents tested by Consumer Reports. Sawyer Picaridin is its top pick for the most effective product on the market, and the organization advises skipping those made with natural plant oils as most fail after just one hour. The mosquitoes that transmit Zika are active in the daytime, so if you're traveling to an area where you are at risk of infection, be sure to spray frequently and wear long sleeves and pants—no matter the temperature—whenever possible. A company called Nobitech has also just launched outdoor, workout, or leisure attire that uses something called Skintex Technology to repel Zika-carrying mosquitoes. Skintex is the only apparel treatment approved by the EPA—it uses something called microencapsulation technology, which is a slow-release synthetic repellent that is non-toxic to humans.
If a sexual partner has had Zika or traveled to an area where Zika is spreading, condom use is suggested for six months if he's shown symptoms of Zika and eight weeks if he hasn't. You can be tested for Zika, though it's unlikely your doctor will order a test if you're showing no symptoms. Here's a chart that will help you understand whether or not you or your partner should request a test.