What You Need to Know About Travel and the Zika Virus

Tour operators, cruise lines and health officials are keeping a close eye on the Zika virus, which has been found in Latin and South America, parts of the Caribbean and even some of the Southern U.S.

If you are planning a trip to Central or South America—perhaps to Rio de Janiero, Brazil, for the Olympics—you might be concerned about the Zika virus outbreak. You certainly are not the only one. The virus is on the radar of travel planners, cruise lines, world health officials, government officials and even the United States Olympic Committee. The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico even has declared a state of emergency because of the virus.

Zika, which is spread by mosquitoes and can be sexually transmitted, is plaguing Brazil and has been found as far north as the Southern United States. The World Health Organization says there have been reports of a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant. The organization has a Zika fact sheet here.

Zika virus

As of Feb. 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had issued a Level 2-Practice Enhanced Precautions travel alert for "people traveling to regions and certain countries where Zika virus transmission is ongoing: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. ... Until more is known, and out of an abundance of caution, CDC recommends special precautions for pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant: Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. Pregnant women who must travel to one of these areas should talk to their doctor or other healthcare provider first and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip."

Audley Travel, a custom tour provider which operates globally, including Brazil, said it is carefully monitoring the situation, although Claire Saylor, the travel company's senior marketing manager said Brazil was "just a small part of our travel product for U.S. clients."

"A colleague sent over a Google trends report this morning [Feb. 8]," Saylor said, "that showed after a strong peak in searches for Zika mid-last week. They have consistently tapered off since Feb. 5th. We are advising clients, as most companies are, not to travel if they are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant in the near future and have had a handful of clients opt to delay their travel plans to allow time to better grasp what the outbreak really means for them and to make a more educated decision when further details are available."

Cruise lines that operate in the areas most impacted by the Zika virus also are monitoring the situation and warning travelers. According to a press release from Norwegian Cruise Line: "At this time, the only passengers that are advised not to travel to affected areas are expectant mothers, and we are making accommodations for those very few affected guests to reschedule their cruise for a future date or change their itinerary to non-affected destinations. ... For anyone else traveling, the best method to avoid any risk is by taking steps to help protect yourself from mosquito and other insect bites and follow the CDC guidelines which include covering exposed skin by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and hats and use an appropriate insect repellent containing DEET."

The outbreak could have more implications than just tourism and business travel. Officials from the United States Olympic Committee told U.S. sports federations recently that athletes and staff who are concerned about their health over the Zika virus can avoid the Rio de Janiero games in August. "Bottom line," no one should go to Brazil, "if they don't feel comfortable going," said Donald Anthony, the president and chairman of USA Fencing, who was involved in the January conference call from the USOC. The committee will let athletes and staff members decide whether they participate in the games.

ABC News reports Puerto Rico has declared a state of emergency because of the virus. There have been 22 reported infections as of Feb. 5, and the State Emergency and Disaster Administration has created a federal and state task force to deal with the outbreak. The government also froze prices on products needed to prevent the disease.