Don’t just worry about the Zika virus — worry about this, too

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Concerned about the Zika virus? When it comes to travelers’ health, that’s only part of the story.

In case you were wondering, Zika has spread to 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there already have been about 20 cases. Each patient had previously traveled to an area affected by the virus.

Zika is a virus primarily transmitted by a particular type of mosquito found in much of the Western Hemisphere, including parts of the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just 20 percent of people infected with Zika get sick and the illness is typically mild.

It’s the virus’ apparent effect on the fetuses of pregnant women that has put Zika in the headlines. The NIH reports Zika has been “tentatively linked to a steep increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly, a very serious condition characterized by a small head and brain.” The Brazil Ministry of Health reports there may also be a link between Zika and Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a normally rare disorder with symptoms of muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.

Currently, there is no vaccine or treatment for Zika, which compounds its problems.

On Jan. 22, the CDC issued Interim Guidelines for Pregnant Women concerning the Zika virus. The CDC recommends that all pregnant women “consider postponing travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.”

The CDC also recommends that pregnant women traveling in areas where Zika transmission is active should avoid mosquito bites. I recommend this be followed by everyone. The mosquitoes which spread Zika bite indoors and outdoors. Effective mosquito bite prevention strategies include: wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants, permethrin-treated clothing and using insect repellents containing DEET.

United Airlines has said it will allow customers concerned about the Zika virus to cancel or postpone their trips if ticketed to fly to areas affected by the virus. American Airlines announced a somewhat more restrictive policy.

More to the story

The CDC carefully monitors many traveler health issues and regularly issues Warning, Alert and Watch notices. In addition to the Zika virus alert notices, the CDC currently has polio alert notices for travelers to Myanmar, Nigeria, Madagascar, Guinea, Laos and Ukraine.

While the numbers of polio cases in these countries are low, the CDC recommends all travelers be fully vaccinated against polio. For adults who were vaccinated as children, that means they should receive a single lifetime booster dose of polio vaccine.

Countries have their own specific health issues and requirements. Yellow fever is a continuing health issue with which I’ve had to deal in my travels to South America.

Before traveling outside the U.S., I consult the CDC’s country specific information.

For example, Ecuador, the gateway to the Galapagos Islands, has areas in which yellow fever is a risk. Quito, Ecuador’s capital, is not among them. If you’re going to an area of risk, you need a vaccination. In countries like the U.S., you can’t get a yellow fever vaccination from your family physician. You have to obtain it from a designated yellow fever vaccination center, and most require an appointment. You may not be able to get a last-minute vaccination.

Not knowing and fulfilling a country’s health requirements can potentially end an expensive trip before it starts.

For example, when reviewing the CDC Ecuador health information page, we learn that, “The government of Ecuador requires proof of yellow fever vaccination if you are traveling from a country with risk of yellow fever.” For those touring or just making connections in other South American countries which have a risk of yellow fever, on the way to Ecuador, you won’t be allowed to enter Ecuador without proof of a yellow fever vaccination.

Even when there aren’t specific health issues at your destination country, there are many common health concerns with which travelers should be prepared to deal, regardless of their destination. For example, everyone brings some first aid items and drugs such as aspirin and acetaminophen when they travel, but many travelers don’t bring potential treatments for one of the most common travel ailments, travelers’ diarrhea (TD). It can quickly ruin a trip. According to the CDC, TD attacks between 30 to 70 percent of travelers, depending on the destination and season.

It happened to me

On my trip to Morocco late last year, more than half our group came down with TD, including me. One person had a severe case of TD and couldn’t finish the trip.

There are a number of over-the-counter medications for the prevention and treatment of TD. In addition, as it’s most often bacterially caused, antibiotics can be used as an empirical treatment, according to the CDC. I recommend consulting your primary physician about your travels. I never travel without treatment medications for TD, prescribed by my physician, which have been effective for me.

Health issues, when traveling abroad, must be considered and prepared for prior to your trip. Using the online resources of health organizations such as the CDC and the Public Health Agency of Canada should be combined with direct consultation with your primary physician.

Ned Levi

Ned Levi has traveled the world as an engineer and business executive. He is the founder of NSL Associates, a technology consulting company, and is a professional photographer specializing in travel and wildlife photography.

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  • AJPeabody

    What we need is mosquito control, not with poisons but with control of breeding spots and further development and use of genetically modified males with hereditary infertility. Otherwise , there will be more Zika and West Nile epidemics as tropical diseases spread into a warming US. Next to come: Dengue. Or some other backwoods African virus that takes a trip to the new World. These efforts will cost money and require a lot of government action, so I guess we will just have to be too little, too late, as always.