As the Zika virus continues to explode in the Americas and beyond, health experts have stressed that travellers must ensure they are protected from mosquitoes which can carry a range of human diseases.
Speaking to Travel Weekly, spokesperson for the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA) Professor William Rawlinson said the virus has been known for 68 years but is now becoming a more serious issue as it spreads to new populations where infections haven’t been seen before. This is resulting in a high number of transmissions as is currently being seen in Brazil.
Symptoms of the mild, but “not pleasant” illness, include shivers and joint pains that appear within about a week of infection.
“Everybody needs to be aware of it, but it’s with pregnant women where we might be seeing more serious consequences,” Rawlinson explained. He highlighted the still unproven associations between the acute form of the zika virus and malformations in babies such as smaller heads.
“That’s what’s worrying people the most.”
Those infected with the disease may be laid up for a “few days”, but the greater concern is that they will then transmit the disease to others, or spread it to new areas, Rawlinson said. The disease is known to be transmitted by mosquitoes, although a recent case suggests it may also be sexually transmittable.
“However, that doesn’t appear to be a common means of transmission,” he hastened to add.
Two cases of the virus have been reported in Australia to date. with both cases residents of New South Wales who had recently travelled to the Caribbean.
While an outbreak in Australia is possible, it seems unlikely, according to Rawlinson.
“That’s because most of Australia doesn’t have the mosquito that transmits the Zika virus,” he said. They are found in areas of Far North Queensland, but Rawlinson said that they are more commonly found in Asia.
They also carry other mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue, which is considered a much higher risk for Australian travellers because of the serious implications of reinfection. As a result, Rawlinson warned that the best course of action remains the same – to take precautions against being bitten by mosquitoes.
Furthermore, travellers should check the latest Australian Government and Centres for Disease Control advice regarding any areas that they are planning to visit.
GENERAL PROTECTIVE MEASURES (CDC)
Avoid outbreaks. To the extent possible, travelers should avoid known foci of epidemic disease transmission. The CDC Travelers’ Health website provides updates on regional disease transmission patterns and outbreaks (www.cdc.gov/travel).
Be aware of peak exposure times and places. Exposure to arthropod bites may be reduced if travelers modify their patterns or locations of activity. Although mosquitoes may bite at any time of day, peak biting activity for vectors of some diseases (such as dengue and chikungunya) is during daylight hours. Vectors of other diseases (such as malaria) are most active in twilight periods (dawn and dusk) or in the evening after dark. Avoiding the outdoors or taking preventive actions (such as using repellent) during peak biting hours may reduce risk. Place also matters; ticks and chiggers are often found in grasses, woodlands, or other vegetated areas. Local health officials or guides may be able to point out areas with increased arthropod activity.
Wear appropriate clothing. Travelers can minimize areas of exposed skin by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, boots, and hats. Tucking in shirts, tucking pants into socks, and wearing closed shoes instead of sandals may reduce risk. Repellents or insecticides, such as permethrin, can be applied to clothing and gear for added protection. (Additional information on clothing is below.)
Check for ticks. Travelers should inspect themselves and their clothing for ticks during outdoor activity and at the end of the day. Prompt removal of attached ticks can prevent some infections. Showering within 2 hours of being in a tick-infested area reduces the risk of some tickborne diseases.
Bed nets. When accommodations are not adequately screened or air conditioned, bed nets are essential in providing protection and reducing discomfort caused by biting insects. If bed nets do not reach the floor, they should be tucked under mattresses. Bed nets are most effective when they are treated with a pyrethroid insecticide. Pretreated, long-lasting bed nets can be purchased before traveling, or nets can be treated after purchase. Effective, treated nets may also be available in destination countries. Nets treated with a pyrethroid insecticide will be effective for several months if they are not washed. Long-lasting pretreated nets may be effective for much longer.
Insecticides and spatial repellents. More spatial repellent products are becoming commercially available. These products, containing active ingredients such as metofluthrin and allethrin, augment aerosol insecticide sprays, vaporizing mats, and mosquito coils that have been available for some time. Such products can help to clear rooms or areas of mosquitoes (spray aerosols) or repel mosquitoes from a circumscribed area (coils, spatial repellents). Although many of these products appear to have repellent or insecticidal activity under particular conditions, they have not yet been adequately evaluated in peer-reviewed studies for their efficacy in preventing vectorborne disease. Travelers should supplement the use of these products with repellent on skin or clothing and using bed nets in areas where vectorborne diseases are a risk or biting arthropods are noted. Since some products available internationally may contain pesticides that are not registered in the United States, it may be preferable for travelers to bring their own. Insecticides and repellent products should always be used with caution, avoiding direct inhalation of spray or smoke.