As temperatures rise and travelers prepare for summer vacations, experts warn that taking the proper precautions to protect against Zika is still of the utmost importance.
Although the virus's predicted impact has yet to be determined fully this year, the truth is, when it comes to mosquito-borne illnesses, forecasting the damage a certain disease is going to cause often presents epidemiologists with a formidable challenge.
“We thought that a couple years ago, Chikungunya, [another type of mosquito-borne illness], was going to make a large inroad into the United States, but it never really amounted to a whole lot of anything," said Joseph Conlon, a retired, 20-year Navy epidemiologist who now serves as a technical advisor to the American Mosquito Control Agency. "So, we don’t really know what’s going to happen with the Zika virus, but to be prudent, we need to be ready for it to make another onslaught.”
So whether traveling in the United States or abroad, precautions are recommended due to the uncertainty.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), not much is known about Zika, a mosquito-borne flavivirus. The incubation period is still a mystery, but scientists estimate that it is likely in the range of a few days.
Early symptoms can vary and often include fever, muscle and joint pain, headache, skin rashes and conjunctivitis (pink eye). However, experts caution that many cases may be asymptomatic.
“If any type of flu-like symptoms start occurring after coming back from a high-risk area, I would be very concerned about that,” Conlon said. “Even if you’re not symptomatic, you should still consider getting tested for it.”
Just because a Zika infection may be subtle, doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. The lasting consequences of the disease are still being studied, but according to the WHO, the virus has been linked to a number of long-term health problems, including a birth defect known as microcephaly.
For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that any women who are pregnant, or plan on becoming pregnant within the next six months, avoid traveling to any high-risk areas.
Babies affected by microcephaly can be born with severely deformed heads, damaged brain tissue, joints with limited range of motion, various neurological problems and excessive muscle tone that restricts bodily movement.
For those who are unable to avoid traveling, or who happen to reside in problematic areas, Conlon recommends three different preventative measures to avoid exposure.
First, since Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses are primarily spread by a mosquito species called the Aedes Aegypti, it is important to get rid of potential sites that the bug may use to breed.
“Get rid of any standing water in any type of flower pots or anything like that,” Conlon said. “Even places you’re going on vacation. If you see flower pots and whatnot, I would consider dumping them out, because those are where mosquitoes are breeding.”
Next, Conlon underscored the importance of dressing properly when going outside and avoiding peak times of mosquito activity.
“The mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus prefer dark colors, and they tend to bite during the day,” he said. “So, wear light-colored clothing, and make sure that the clothing is very loose, because mosquitoes can and will bite through tight-fitting clothing.”
Lastly, Conlon underscored the importance of regularly applying bug repellent that has been registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) .
“There’s a lot of repellents out there, stuff on the internet, that makes all these claims about how they repel mosquitoes with oil of cloves and things like that,” he said. “But this is potentially a matter of life and death, and you should really stick to the stuff that has been registered with the EPA.”
Parents should also keep in mind that many EPA-registered bug sprays contains a chemical known as DEET (N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide), which can be dangerous to humans, especially children, if utilized incorrectly. Only sprays containing less than 30 percent DEET should be used, and care should be taken to avoid spreading the chemical to a child's mouth, eyes or hands.
Since Zika infections can be asymptomatic and therefore hard to recognize, travelers should continue to wear bug repellent for up to two weeks after returning home as well, to prevent an unknown infection from spreading to local mosquito populations.
Zika can be transmitted sexually too, and the virus can persist in bodily fluids for up to six months. The CDC advises those traveling to high-risk areas to practice safe sex or abstinence for at least that amount of time after returning and advises anyone residing in those areas to delay pregnancy until after the threat passes.
At this time, there is no known cure for Zika. Cases are treated with rest and the administration of fluids under medical supervision.
Several vaccines are in currently in production, but most sources estimate that it will still be many more years before they are commercially available. The hope is to create a polyvalent product, meaning that it will be able to treat a number of other mosquito-borne illnesses in addition to just Zika.
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.