If you’re thinking of traveling to South America any time soon, you’ve probably been interrogated about the Zika virus. As a woman of childbearing age living in Colombia, I had family members asking if I was concerned because they heard it could cause birth defects up to two years after infection.
After a thorough Google frenzy, I can say there is no evidence to back such a claim up, but I’m sure it created an exponential increase in clicks for some Search Engine Optimization mastermind out there.
One would think that living in the “Age of Information” would make it easier to discern truth, but it has only made it more problematic, at least for some people in your Facebook newsfeed (you know who they are).
So if you’re a traveler or expat in South America right now, you’re probably seeking perspective amongst this mayhem of (often conflicting) media reports.
First, yes – there is a significant amount of evidence supporting the suggestion that Zika can lead to birth defects, although that evidence is currently circumstantial. It’s important to also note that experts are still wary to rule out other potential causes. In the last week, concern has also been growing over studies that concluded it’s possible (although extremely rare) for Zika to be transmitted sexually.
Researchers don’t know how long Zika remains present in semen, but they do know it is present longer than it is in blood.
At this time, authorities recommend abstinence or correct use of condoms for 6 months if a man suspects he could have been infected, and the Center for Disease Control issued warnings to pregnant women or women who may become pregnant to avoid the countries where the virus is currently spreading (Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, and Venezuela).
This warning seems a bit extreme since the Yellow Fever mosquito (which carries Zika) is most populous in tropical and subtropical areas.
For instance, a visit to the high-altitude Andes Mountains of Colombia would have a much lower risk of infection than traveling to the tropical grasslands along the Colombia/Venezuela border.
The risk is not high in all areas of the countries on the list, and independent research on which parts of the countries have the highest and lowest concentration of Yellow Fever mosquitoes might help travelers make more informed decisions.
But as many have asked, “Why take the risk if you don’t have to?” The tricky part of this question is that there are much more severe risks travelers take than those of the Zika virus.
Malaria, Chikungunya and Dengue
For example, Malaria, Chikungunya, West Nile and Dengue Fever are all other mosquito-borne diseases with death tolls and far worse symptoms.
Malaria alone still reports over one million deaths and 300-500 million cases per year, and it’s estimated that 1 child dies of malaria every 40 seconds.
Chikungunya, although not usually fatal, causes agonizing joint pain, and there were almost 3,000 cases among travelers in the U.S. But don’t imagine that North America is free of life-threatening mosquito-borne diseases. Around 1% of people who are infected with West Nile virus develop serious and permanent neurologic illnesses with symptoms such as coma or paralysis, and Dengue Fever had a recent outbreak in Hawaii.
Zika Virus: the Verdict
Researchers report that 80% of people infected have no symptoms.
Out of all the mosquito-borne diseases circulating the globe, I would be most relieved to have Zika.
The risks are microscopic as long as you’re not pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant in the near future. And because I’m not planning on becoming pregnant in the next few years, I will continue traveling throughout South America free of fear, whilst taking all possible precautions – against Zika and ALL mosquito-borne illnesses, as any sensible traveler would.
“Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus,” http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/health/what-is-zika-virus.html
“Why Men Need to Worry About Zika Virus,” http://edition.cnn.com/2016/02/16/health/men-zika-virus-sexual-transmission
“Potential Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus,” http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/21/2/pdfs/14-1363.pdf
“Zika May Linger in Semen for up to 2 Months After Symptoms Fade,” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3444305/Zika-linger-semen-long-symptoms-fade-doctors-report.html
“More than 3,100 Pregnant Women in Colombia have Zika Virus,” http://colombiareports.com/more-than-3100-pregnant-women-in-colombia-have-zika-virus-govt/
“Why You Can Get So Many Diseases from Mosquitoes,” http://time.com/4177122/mosquitoes-diseases-zika-virus
“General Questions about West Nile Virus,” http://www.cdc.gov/westnile/faq/genquestions.html
“Dengue Outbreak 2015-2016,”
“CDC Advice for Avoiding Bug Bites,” http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/avoid-bug-bites