Zika Virus Q&A: What is it? What are the travel implications?

Travel advice

Aedes mosquito. Photo: Deposit

Pól Ó Conghaile

The rapid spread of the Zika virus has been declared a global health emergency. Here's your need-to-know.

What is the Zika virus?

"The Zika virus is a disease that is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, similar in many ways to the better known Dengue Fever or Chikungunya," says Dr. Graham Fry, Medical Director of the Tropical Medical Bureau (tmb.ie).

Why is it in the news?

A pandemic is in progress. The virus began causing public health concerns in May of 2015 in Brazil, and has spread rapidly. Almost all of South and Central America is affected, as are Samoa in the Pacific and Cape Verde in the Atlantic.

Rory McIlroy has withdrawn from the Rio Olympics over Zika fears.

"Zika is likely to spread to the United States," say US scientists Daniel R Lucey and Lawrence O Gostin, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "The disease now has 'explosive' pandemic potential."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared its spread a global health emergency, raising its highest alarm for just the fourth time ever.

What are the symptoms?

"The incubation period (time from infection to first symptoms) is usually three to five days and typical symptoms include fever, muscular aches and pains, headache and runny eyes - all very similar to what is seen in 'flu'," Dr. Fry says.

Symptoms are mostly mild. In fact, it appears that only 20pc of those infected actually develop symptoms sufficient enough to cause problems.

Why is it dangerous?

Infection with Zika virus has been strongly linked with a serious birth condition called microcephaly (where babies are born with unusually small heads), according to the HPSC.

After a review of the evidence of this association, the WHO and CDC now consider that the cases of microcephaly seen in the Americas have been directly caused by Zika virus disease infection. The CDC team's findings have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Links to other neurological complications are being investigated, and there is strong evidence of a link with muscle paralysis Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Is there a cure?

No. There is no vaccine or treatment, similar to many mosquito-borne diseases. "Usually all that is required is for the individual's own body defences to get to work," Dr. Fry says.

Scientists are at work on experimental vaccines, with human testing set to begin on the first of these in the coming weeks.

Can Zika be spread through sexual contact?

Zika virus can be passed between sexual partners in the man’s semen, according to the HPSC, especially "if he developed symptoms of Zika virus disease".

Thus far, however, relatively few such cases have been documented.

As a precaution, the HPSC advises travellers returning from affected areas to practise safe sex (by wearing a condom) for eight weeks if they show no symptoms of Zika, and six months if they have developed symptoms that could be due to the virus.

How can I prevent infection?

"The main protection against the Zika virus is to avoid travel to at-risk areas and also to avoid mosquito bites," says Dr. Fry.

As the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has stated, pregnant women, or those planning to become pregnant, are advised to avoid unessential travel to countries reporting a high number of cases at this time, 'out of an abundance of caution'.

The chances of being bitten can be greatly reduced by wearing mosquito repellent, as well as long sleeves, trousers and hats, and by using physical barriers such as screens, mosquito nets, and closing doors and windows.

The Aedes mosquito bites mostly during daytime.

What happens if I cancel my trip?

Travel insurers or tour operators are under no obligation to offer refunds or amendments as there are no Zika-related travel restrictions in place.

However, many airlines and tour operators have decided to offer customers who can produce a doctor's note to confirm their pregnancy the opportunity to cancel or change a booking to an affected country.

So far, these include Falcon Holidays, Thomson, American Holidays, Travelmood and Tropical Sky in Ireland. Airlines including BA, United, American and Delta are offering refunds, and Royal Caribbean is allowing itinerary changes.

Changes and refunds all come with certain conditions attached - so contact your travel agent or provider to check the small print.

Am I covered by my travel insurance?

Zika lies outside the terms of most travel insurance policies.

Standard policies will cover illness and treatment while on holiday, but not cancellations made because travellers are fearful of travel.

However, Blue Insurance, Multitrip.com and Mapfre Assistance have offered cancellation coverage to pregnant women and partners who booked trips to affected areas before January 25 - once they have exhausted their cancellation options with airlines and tour operators.

"We feel this is fair to our clients," the providers said.

What has the Irish government said?

The Department of Foreign Affairs has advised Irish citizens to be aware of the risks of Zika and to take appropriate precautions when travelling to affected areas.

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, said:

"While the risk is low in most cases I would particularly urge pregnant women and women who are trying to become pregnant to consider postponing their travel to affected areas and to consult with their healthcare provider before travel.”

The European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control advice is here.

The HPSC's advice is here.

NB: This story is being updated to reflect developments. Last update: 22.06.16.