Travelling to a Zika virus hot spot? What you need to know

The Zika virus, originally discovered in 1947 in a forest in Uganda after which the virus is named, has many travellers—especially pregnant travellers—wondering if they should cancel their upcoming trip. But what is the Zika virus, where is it found, and how do you get it?

What is the Zika virus?

The Zika virus, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, causes fever, joint pain, red eyes, and rash as well as muscle pain, physical weakness, fatigue and headaches. It’s estimated that 20-25 per cent of those infected with the virus develop symptoms, and the symptoms generally last two to seven days. It is uncommon for an individual to require hospitalization.

Where is the Zika virus found?

Prior to 2015, Zika virus outbreaks were mostly found in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. However, in 2015 the virus extended its reach, closer to home and certainly in areas where Canadians tend to travel, into the Americas.

Where is the Zika virus found?

Map Source: World Health Organization—Zika situation report

How do you get the Zika virus?

The vast majority of people with the Zika virus get it as a result of being bit by an infected mosquito; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. suspect it can be sexually transmitted as well. Men with the virus could potentially pass it onto partners because the virus is present in semen longer than in blood. There have been two cases where it’s believed the virus has been sexually transmitted.

How do you protect yourself from getting the Zika virus?

If travelling to an affected area, you should try to minimize the chance you’ll get bitten by a mosquito and:

  • Use insect repellent on exposed skin
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants that are light-coloured
  • Wear shoes, not sandals
  • Stay in accommodations with air conditioning, or at minimum, screens on the doors and windows

Men who have travelled in areas where the Zika virus is active, should abstain from sex or use condoms as directed until they’ve had an opportunity to speak with their healthcare provider.

Why is the Zika virus particularly concerning for pregnant women?

It’s suspected there is a relationship between the Zika virus and babies born with microcephaly because since the outbreak in Brazil, more babies have been born with it than before; however, there’s still not a lot known. As a result, the Public Health Agency of Canada advises pregnant women (and those trying to get pregnant) to discuss their travel plans with their doctor to assess the risk and consider delaying travel to the areas affected.

Have travel plans that you’d like to cancel?

If the Zika virus has you concerned and you want to change or cancel your travel plans, the options available to you will vary. Many Canadian airlines are allowing passengers (mostly pregnant passengers) to change, cancel or reschedule their trips without penalty.

But what if you purchased trip cancellation coverage? This too varies. Unless you’re pregnant, you likely won’t have much luck getting reimbursed if you cancel your travel plans as a result of the Zika virus—even with a trip cancellation insurance policy because the Canadian government has not issued an “avoid all travel” advisory for the areas affected.

If you are pregnant your chances are better, although not guaranteed. Many travel insurers—but not all—are overlooking the formal travel advisory requirement and making an exception for their pregnant customers and travelling companions. If you already have a trip cancellation policy (it’s too late if you don’t), are pregnant, and want to cancel your trip, call your travel insurance provider to see if you’ll be covered.

As more develops, we’ll keep you posted.