Do Travelers Still Need to Worry About Zika?

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It’s been years since Zika dominated headlines, but there are still questions that have been left unanswered.

CBS News just brought Zika back to everyone’s attention with Zika: Children of the Outbreak. This new documentary focuses on “Generation Zika”: the children of the thousands of women infected by the 2016 Zika outbreak when they were pregnant—as well as the looming possibility of another epidemic. Should you still be protecting yourself against the virus in 2019? Here are the answers to a few common questions what do we know.

What is the Zika virus?

Zika fever is a virus that is mostly spread by the aedes species of mosquitos. In 2015 and 2016 there was an epidemic that originated in northeastern Brazil that rapidly spread throughout most of the Americas and parts of Southeast Asia.

Can I Still Get Zika in 2019?

Will there be another Zika outbreak? The short answer is: probably.

While cases of Zika are nowhere near the levels seen at the height of the outbreak in 2016, mosquitos carrying the Zika virus still infect people in several places in the world. The CDC currently advises that pregnant women not travel to the north Indian state of Rajasthan, which experienced an outbreak late last year. The risk still exists in much of the Americas, Southeast Asia, and parts of Africa.

Keep an eye on travel advisories for affected areas. The Canadian government has issued a warning that travelers should that people who are pregnant or may be considering becoming pregnant should simply avoid traveling to Thailand. You can also get current updates from the CDC’s Zika travel information page, which includes a map that shows the levels of Zika in different countries and whether or not certain travelers should go to those locations.

I Traveled to A Zika Zone and Was Bitten By a Mosquito. What Do I Do?

If you are not pregnant or planning to become pregnant, a good course of action is to simply watch out for symptoms. Unfortunately, part of what makes Zika so insidious is that there are usually no symptoms. And if a person does experience any symptoms, they are often so mild (headache, high temperature, skin rash, muscle and/or joint pain) and brief in their duration that they go unnoticed. It’s rare for people infected with Zika to experience any other consequences of infection. However, some develop complications related to the virus, such as Guillain–Barré syndrome. A doctor can order blood or urine tests to determine if you are currently or recently infected.

Zika holds the most risk for children in utero. If you are planning to become pregnant or are the partner of someone planning to become pregnant, use condoms or abstain from sex for at least 2-3 months. Zika related birth defects are most likely to occur when the mother is infected during the first trimester of pregnancy. According to the CDC, pregnancy should be avoided for at least two months after possible exposure to the virus or traveling in an affected area—three months if the male partner (it’s believed that the virus can last longer in semen than other bodily fluids) may have been exposed to the virus.

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I Plan on Traveling to A Zika Zone. How Do I Stay Safe?

Zika is primarily transmitted via a bite by an infected mosquito. To avoid becoming infected this way, follow the CDC’s advice on preventing mosquito bites. Zika can also be sexually transmitted by infected partners. Avoid sexual activity (or use condoms) if you or your partner are in or have recently been to an infected area. There is also a third, even less common, way to get Zika: through blood transfusions.

Hopefully, in the future, other steps will include protective vaccinations. While none currently exist, Yale researchers have found that they were able to reduce the level of Zika in mice by targeting proteins found in the mosquitoes’ saliva.

Will There Be Another Zika Outbreak?

The short answer is: probably. Infectious disease specialist Dr. Esper Kallas states in the documentary that an outbreak in a densely populated city like São Paulo isn’t a matter of if but when. The unfortunate reality is that the conditions that allowed Zika to take hold in places like Recife—densely populated, impoverished areas without sufficient plumbing, air conditioning, or window screens—not only exist, they’re flourishing. A study in Nature Microbiology asserts that accelerating “urbanization, connectivity and climate change” have allowed for the “unabated spread” of mosquitoes.

And while it’s believed that the reason cases of the virus fell off so quickly is that local populations who had no previous exposure to Zika developed a herd immunity, there are many places where those immunities don’t exist. And there are still cases of what’s believed to congenital Zika syndrome in Recife that occurred after the initial outbreak.