08 Feb

What you need to know about Zika virus

ABTA's Sean Tipton talks about Zika virus and what it means for you if you're travelling to or from an infected area.

Not so long ago, I’d have been surprised if anyone outside the medical community had heard of the Zika virus. Now it’s the lead story on TV, radio and online media, and nearly everyone is aware of it. There is a good reason why Zika was so obscure, even though it was first discovered in 1947; 80% of those people unlucky enough to be bitten by a mosquito that carries the virus show no symptoms at all. Those who do may suffer for a few days from a high temperature, muscle and joint pains and conjunctivitis. Unpleasant but not the end of the world. However, medical authorities have begun to see an alarming rise in the number of babies being born in Brazil with severe abnormalities, which are possibly caused by the Zika virus. So, quite rightly, Health authorities including the UK have taken a “better safe than sorry approach” and are advising pregnant women to reconsider whether they should travel to countries where Zika is prevalent. 

The UK travel industry is also taking the same cautious attitude and are following the health authorities’ advice. Zika virus occurs in many South and Central American countries, and some Caribbean islands, and there have been reports in Cape Verde, Fiji, Curacao, American Samoa, Samoa, New Caledonia, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. ABTA Members have proactively contacted their customers who had booked to travel to these destinations and, if any of them are pregnant, have given them and their partner the option to transfer to a different destination free of charge. Tour operators don’t have to do this, but they regard it as a part of their duty of care to their customers. 

There’s a lot of confusion around Zika. People coming back from holiday who may have contracted it are not contagious, however as a precaution medical advice states that if you and your partner are planning a pregnancy or are already pregnant, unprotected sex should be avoided for 28 days following return from an area with active ZIKV transmission or 6 months after recovery from Zika virus infection.   

To put the problem in context, Public Health England has reported 6 cases of Zika from returning holidaymakers in the last three years. That’s out of hundreds of thousands who will have returned from infected areas. 

One of the issues that Zika has highlighted are all the other dangers that can be caused by mosquito bites in tropical destinations. Apart from Zika, there are Chikungunya, Dengue, Yellow Fever and Malaria. For some of these, though not all, you can be inoculated or take preventative medicine; it’s always a good idea to check the relevant health advice at least six weeks before you travel on the NATHNAC travel health advice website nathnac.net.

Prevention is better than cure, so always use a good quality insect repellent day and night, and wear long-sleeved tops. Use mosquito nets where available and electronic repellents. Mozzie bites, even when not carrying nasty lurgies, are very itchy and irritating, so do everything you can to avoid them in countries where the little blighters are a problem.