In the last few weeks word of a new, horrifying disease has spread rapidly, causing countless anxious travellers to question their holiday plans. We clarify the Zika virus in more detail and explain its impact on your next trip.
What exactly is the Zika virus?
On the 29th of January 2016 new warnings were released regarding the outbreak of the Zika Virus. The virus, transmitted through mosquito bites, raised particular concerns due to its links to birth defects in pregnant women. Reported in Tonga, the Dominican Republic and the US Virgin Islands, Zika is said to have spread to 24 nations and territories in the Americas.
Although the virus has been around since 1947, it was mainly confined to Africa and Asia. However, it has now spread to the Western hemisphere and affected more than a million people in Brazil. The World Health Organization has declared the current outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern." As of yet there is no vaccine against the Zika virus and no way of completely preventing mosquito bites.
What are the symptoms?
The Zika virus can cause mild symptoms in adults, with fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis being the most common signs of infection. The predominant cause of concern over Zika is its link to birth malformations and neurological syndromes.
What if I’m pregnant?
The question over whether the Zika virus directly causes birth defects is not definitive but there has been a substantial increase in Microcephaly (a condition where babies are born with unusually smaller heads) in Brazil where Zika has spread widely.
A Smarttraveller bulletin regarding the Zika Virus warns pregnant women to be “aware of the areas of ongoing transmission.” Australians residing in or travelling to these regions are also advised to pay close attention to any relevant travel advisory and to stay informed.
Women who are pregnant (in any trimester) or those who are actively seeking to get pregnant are advised to consider postponing travel to any area with rampant Zika virus transmission. A full list of countries currently affected by the virus can be found here: https://smartraveller.gov.au/bulletins/zika_virus
If you do intend to travel to a Zika virus prone region and are pregnant or are intending to become pregnant, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor first and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during your trip.
Alternately, if you do want to cancel your trip because of Zika, your airline may be offering a refund or credit so be sure to research your options. At present, 11 airlines and three cruise ship companies have changed their refund or credit policies due to the virus. Whilst Qantas does not fly to any of the affected countries, its partner, American Airlines, is offering refunds to pregnant women.
Should I cancel my trip?
Although the panic over the Zika virus is understandable, it may not require you to put your holiday plans on hold just yet. Experts say that the vast majority who contract the virus will never know they had it. Even if they do show symptoms, these will usually last for a week and then disappear causing little to no harm.
Does travel insurance cover pandemics like the Zika virus?
Be warned that travel insurance will generally not cover pandemics, particularly after official travel warnings have been released. That means that any regions that are currently affected by the Zika virus (as listed on the Smart Traveller website) will not be covered under your policy. However, if you purchased travel insurance before the warnings were issued, you may be covered.
Some companies such as Columbus Direct, Go Insurance, InsureandGo, No Worries Insurance, Tick Travel Insurance and Travel Insuranz will pay a benefit should you need to cancel your trip due to government restrictions (after an epidemic). However, you would have had to purchase a policy before any destination specific warnings were released in order to qualify for cover.
Regardless of whether a Zika warning has been issued for your intended travel region, your policy would still uphold all the usual benefits of travel insurance. However any claims relating to the warning (that you already knew about) may be invalid.
Mosquito bite prevention
As there is no current cure for the Zika virus the best method is prevention. Consult your doctor before travelling and take the following steps to prevent mosquito bites during your trip:
-Cover up: wear long-sleeved shirts and pants and tuck your pants into your socks.
-Stay indoors: stay in air-conditioned rooms with window or door screen to prevent mosquito entry.
-Sleep safe: sleep under mosquito nets if you are unable to prevent mosquito entry.
- Use repellent: use doctor recommended mosquito repellents; be sure to reapply as directed and apply over sunscreen. When pregnant consult with your doctor as to which repellents are safe.
- Remove sources of standing water: Sources of standing water can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
A final word
Whilst fears regarding the Zika virus are not unfounded, the general population will most likely remain unaffected by the epidemic. However pregnant women and those women planning to get pregnant may want to carefully consider their options. Although you can protect yourself against mosquito bites, avoiding travel to affected regions would obviously be the safest option.