Shortly before I left Canada in January to travel to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, the Zika virus was making headline news. Almost every day since, I hear dire warnings from the World Health Organization, announcements from airline companies letting people cancel their tickets to Brazil, and ominous reports of correlated birth defects.
Did I think of changing my plans? No. Now that I am here, would I go home early? No. Would I have booked the trip in the first place? Maybe not, but not for the reasons you might think.
First, I am a big believer in minimizing the fear associated with travel. I’ve travelled solo on six continents, and been on trips as long as five months by myself. I travelled to New York City two weeks after 9/11, to Paris three weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack, and to Tunis a month after the Bardo attack (which you can read about in The Wayward Post, Tragedy and Tourism: Visiting the Bardo Museum in Tunisia). Yes, of course I want to be safe. But I don’t want my actions — or the world’s for that matter — to be dictated by fear. And I want to help economies that are at risk.
I’m a big believer in responsible tourism, meaning that I want to, at a minimum, not make a place worse by travelling to it, and, if I can, make it better. And this is where the challenge lies with Zika.
Let’s talk personal safety first.
Am I afraid of Zika? Absolutely not (and not only because I am 45 years old and unlikely to get pregnant).
When travelling, I take precautions to avoid dengue fever — a very serious disease with no cure. Researchers have been trying to make a vaccine for decades. Zika is carried by the same type of mosquito — the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus — that carries dengue, as well as the chikungunya virus.
Mosquito-borne diseases are quite easy for the traveller to avoid. Simply prevent getting bitten. On this trip it has been easy, as there have been mosquitoes in only one place we’ve visited — Iguazu Falls, a spectacular site on the border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
In mosquito-prevalent areas, I wear DEET insect repellent. I make sure to sleep with the windows closed, with a fan blowing on me and, if possible, with the AC on or with a mosquito net (even though dengue- and Zika-mosquitoes are day-biters). In malarial zones, I take the same precautions, as well as take a malaria-prevention drug like Malarone.
But mosquito-borne illnesses are not as easy to avoid for everyone. Travellers sleep in hotels, which cater to foreigners and their more sensitive dispositions. Travellers are only in mosquito-prevalent areas for a short time, and don’t need to wear DEET for more than a few days or weeks. Travellers can afford drugs like Malarone, hospitals and treatments to help ease the painful symptoms of diseases like dengue, should they not take proper precautions and get ill.
Local people, especially in developing countries and in poor and rural areas, are not so lucky. They are greatly at risk of getting diseases like dengue, malaria and Zika. They suffer more — and die — if they do get sick.
The risk borne by local people is what the traveller should consider.
Travellers can be the vector of diseases like Zika. If I am bitten by a mosquito carrying Zika, the CDC says I have only a one in five chance of contracting the disease. If I do get sick, I’ll likely just have a fever and a rash. There is not yet proof that Zika causes microcephaly birth defects, only a correlation in the rise of cases in Brazil with a Zika outbreak last year.
But if I am bitten, whether I get sick or not, I may carry the disease in my bloodstream. When I travel to another area which is not affected by Zika I may be bitten by a mosquito there. If this mosquito were then to bite a local person, I would then have spread Zika to a new area.
However, Zika is not Ebola, SARS or influenza. These diseases can be extremely virulent and difficult to control and contain. A cough can spread them. As long as I am careful to not get bitten, the chance of me spreading Zika is very small.
So, would I change my travel plans to South America? No.
But if I were travelling in mosquito-prevalent areas and did not think I could adequately prevent bites (e.g. if I were allergic to DEET), I would think differently. Travellers who are not sure of their ability to prevent bites and spread the disease should consider not travelling to Zika-prone areas.
Travellers need not fear Zika, at least for themselves. The fear of contracting Zika is very far down the list of things a traveller should be worried about. With a small amount of effort, a traveller can easily avoid getting bitten by a potentially Zika-carrying mosquito.
So, you need not avoid going to South America or to the Caribbean. Yes, do everything you can to prevent getting bitten by mosquitoes so you don’t spread dengue or Zika to local people who can’t take the same precautions as you.
Perhaps a more important question than “should I avoid travelling to a Zika-prone area”: why is the world so concerned about Zika and so driven to find a vaccine when the much more serious diseases of dengue and malaria are barely mentioned? Is it because of our fear of birth defects? Or is it more about money, with the Olympics coming to Brazil and pharmaceutical companies seeing such a potential for profit?
For more discussion of Zika, see THIS is what you should worry about with Zika (it’s not what you think) and my article for the travel safety website World Nomads, Everyone is freaking out about Zika: Should I?