What you need to know about Zika before you travel

By Dr. Philip Robinson

Categories: Featured News
May 25, 2016

If your summer plans include travel to Zika-infected regions, take precaution. The Zika virus epidemic is predicted to get bigger, and women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant and their male partners should weigh the risks before boarding a plane.

With the summer Olympics set in Brazil, it is likely that Orange County's highly mobile residents will be heading in droves to Rio and other regions of the world where the Zika virus has taken hold.

As themedical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at Hoag Hospital, I advise my patients to consider their health risks as they consider their itineraries.

For example, men who are planning to travel to Rio or any other region affected by Zika need to know that they could potentially spread Zika to their sexual partners, even if they don't feel any symptoms of the Zika virus disease. This is why the Centers for Disease Control recommends that men whose partners are pregnant, or are planning to become pregnant, are advised to abstain from sex or use condoms correctly for at least 30 days after returning from a Zika-affected region.

Women who are pregnant, or who are planning to become pregnant soon, are advised not to travel to these regions at all.

The Zika virus, which is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, causes a vague collection of flu-like symptoms — fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (inflamed eyes) — when it causes any symptoms at all.

Many people can become infected without even realizing it. However, Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, as well as other developmental defects.

In addition to Zika, mosquitoes in Rio and other regions carry malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya virus, so even travelers who are not involved in family planning should take precautions against mosquito bites.

Wearing long-sleeve clothing and insect repellent, such as products that include DEET, are helpful methods of keeping mosquitoes from turning your blood into their brunch.

While there is concern that we could start to see transmission of Zika on U.S. soil, I believe it will much less likely than what we're seeing in other parts of the world, due to our more temperate climate, use of screened windows and doors, and the prevalence of air conditioning.

The U.S. also has an aggressive mosquito-abatement program and a robust monitoring system to contain a potential epidemic. And lawmakers and the president are discussing a bill to fund more prevention and monitoring methods nationally.

So far, California has seen 49 cases of Zika virus, two in Orange County. All 544 U.S. cases are associated with travel, and 10 have been acquired sexually. None were transmitted by mosquitoes on U.S. soil.

But there is a fear that that could change. So, as you make your summer plans, keep this in mind: You can minimize your risk, but you can't eliminate it.

If you decide to travel, please travel safely.

For more information: wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/zika-travel-information

PHILIP ROBINSON is medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at Hoag Hospital.