Zika virus is spreading rapidly. Although it’s been around for a long time, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa, a recent outbreak is quickly moving across Mexico, Central and South America. And now Zika has shown up in the United States — in California and Texas.
The World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency. Because of disturbing correlations between Zika and serious birth defects, among other problems, the American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians recommends that pregnant women (in any trimester) or those considering becoming pregnant avoid traveling where Zika is active.
Before you travel — especially if you are pregnant — arm yourself with information and these tips:
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a map of countries affected by Zika. But travelers looking for specifics about the disease at their destination are in for frustration. There is little information available locally where Zika virus transmission is prevalent. And the epidemic is changing rapidly. And so, if you have plans to travel where Zika or other mosquito-borne diseases are active, first assess your risk. If you go, have a plan and supplies to protect yourself against mosquito bites.
Zika fever usually involves a rash, joint pain and eye inflammation (conjunctivitis) — uncomfortable symptoms, but usually not life-threatening. In rare cases it has been linked to the paralyzing Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Another disturbing correlation (though not yet a proven link) has been seen between Zika virus and a serious birth defect called microcephaly. A cluster of infants with this condition, born with smaller heads than normal, has emerged in Brazil recently, at the same time as a Zika outbreak.
No vaccine is approved for Zika although several are being developed.
Chikungunya, dengue and other diseases
The same type of mosquito carries other viral diseases: chikungunya, which can cause crippling arthritis, and dengue (break-bone fever). These, too, are spreading in South America, Central America and Mexico as well as parts of the United States, including Hawaii, Florida and Texas. In fact, dengue is found now on every continent, reports CNN.
Mosquitoes carry all of these viruses. In addition, Zika is known to spread through sexual contact. In the Americas the mosquito carrying these diseases is the Aedes aegypti, a different bug than the Anopheles mosquito that spreads malaria. And this is a useful distinction: While Anopheles bites mostly at night, Aedes aegypti is most active during daylight.
Good news about mosquito repellents
Until recently, mosquito repellents themselves were something of a problem because the most effective products contained a controversial chemical, DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide). But DEET is no longer the only game in town.
Newer products that work best rely primarily on synthetic chemicals and are not totally free of side effects, but any problems are much less severe than those possible with DEET, says Consumer Reports, which tested and rated mosquito repellents in spring 2015.
The best new repellents rely on “plantlike” ingredients — chemicals synthesized to resemble plant compounds. “For the first time ever in Consumer Reports’ tests of insect repellents, new, safer products — made with milder, plant-like chemicals — were the most effective,” CR reports.
The best way to protect yourself is to avoid getting bitten. Easier said than done, right? Read on for the lowdown on mosquito protection.
DEET: DEET is highly effective in repelling mosquitoes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, products with DEET deliver the best mosquito protection and are approved for use on children of any age. Possible side effects include mild redness and irritation. Long-term use in high amounts has been linked to mood changes, insomnia, rashes, disorientation and seizures. (Scientific American examines the evidence.) There is no need to use high concentrations, however. DEET is as effective in a low, 15 percent concentration as it is at 30 percent, Consumer Reports says. The Environmental Working Group, however, finds that “DEET’s safety profile is better than many people assume.”
Picaridin: A chemical based on piperine, a compound in black pepper plants, picaridin is particularly effective in repelling the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It does not cause cancer in animals, has very low toxicity and has not been linked to neurological or reproductive side effects. Look for products with 20 percent picaridin.