Zika Virus Reaches Florida – Should You Cancel Your Trip?

With its progress regularly reported in international news, especially given the recent Olympics in Brazil, the Zika virus has been making travellers nervous for months. It wasn't until recently though that it hit North Americans close to home when it was announced that mosquitoes in Miami were spreading the virus.

Areas in Miami, FL where Zika virus is being spread by mosquitoes.

Map Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What Is Zika Virus?

Many people infected with Zika virus won’t have symptoms, but for the estimated 20-25 per cent of those who do, the symptoms may include fever, red eyes, a rash, and joint and muscle pain for two to seven days. Although uncomfortable, it isn’t life threatening in most cases. What causes concern, however, is the suspected causality between the virus and an increased number of babies born with microcephaly in affected regions. Not only does Zika pose a risk for pregnant women, it’s also a risk for couples who want to conceive, as the mosquito-borne illness was also found to be sexually transmitted.

Zika Virus in the United States

Reuters reported in late August that the Florida Department of Health had identified the first case of non-travel related Zika in Pinellas County, Florida, where Clearwater and St. Petersburg beaches can be found. With now about 43 locally acquired cases of Zika in Florida and a second possible infection site hundreds of kilometres from the original, Miami-Dade, officials are undertaking "aggressive spraying and mosquito abatement efforts," to try to eradicate further cases.

Texas and Louisiana are also expected to be hit, according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, interviewed by Reuters.

Should Tourists Be Worried?

A study conducted by the University of Florida’s Tourism Crisis Management Initiative revealed that travellers to the sunshine state are still planning on moving forward with their vacation, although most admit being worried about this outbreak. Only 10 per cent have cancelled their plans so far, most simply postponing their journey to a later date.

The Canadian government has not issued a formal recommendation to tourists in regards to cancelling their travel plans, but recommend taking necessary precautions to reduce any risk of contracting the Zika virus. However, if you are pregnant or planning to be, the Public Agency of Canada recommends that you avoid travel to known Zika infected areas and surroundings, including parts of Florida.

What Precautions Should Be Taken?

If you’re planning a trip to Florida, you’ll want to make sure that you have travel insurance should you start to feel ill while you’re away, but it’s best to take precautions to minimize the chance of a mosquito bite in the first place.

  • Visit a medical travel specialist at least six weeks before departure to measure personal risks according to your health condition.
  • On site, use insect repellants as much as possible, while respecting the product’s recommended guidelines.
  • Although Zika infected mosquitoes are known to bite all through the day, avoid the outdoors at peak times, such as at the beginning and end of daylight periods.
  • Remain indoors or in a sheltered space when possible, for example in screened patio areas.
  • Wear light-coloured clothing with the least amount of skin showing (long sleeves, closed-toe shoes, etc.) as well as a hat. Where available outside of Canada, use permethrin on your clothing, as it lasts even after many washes.
  • Sleep under a mosquito net that has been treated with insecticide if you are in an improperly isolated house or do not have screens.
  • As the virus can be transmitted sexually, it is recommended to use condoms for at least six months upon return or refrain from sexual activity altogether during pregnancy.
  • If you experience fever, pink eye, rashes, pains in muscles or joints or headaches, consult a physician.

For more information on the virus and the steps to take to reduce your risk of contracting Zika while travelling to affected areas refer to:

Safe travels,

Jennifer Doré Dallas