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Oh cool, another reason for our families to worry about us traveling to South America.
Holy moly, I am about to travel to South America and all I am hearing about is the Zika virus. If you are anything like me, your friends and family already have concerns about your health and safety with your upcoming plans to travel South America. “Be careful or you will get shot, kidnapped or sick.” These are just some of the comments I had before setting off on a year long journey around Latin America. With the added stress of possibly contracting the Zika Virus, you have every right to second guess your decision, I know I did. So what exactly is the Zika virus and should you be concerned about traveling to South America?
While it may seem with all the recent media coverage that Zika is a newly discovered virus, it has, in fact, been around for over 50 years. According to the World Health Organisation, it was first discovered in monkeys in Uganda in 1947 and then in humans in Uganda and Tanzania in 1952. Over the years there have been outbreaks in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. It has now been detected in 70 countries and territories, including 23 countries in the Americas, and new infections are being reported almost daily.
So, If it has been around for so long, why all of a sudden, did it become such a hot topic? Well, in 2015 Brazil reported an increase of Zika virus cases. Brazil also made a connection between these infections and birth defects in newborn babies. With the 2016 Olympics being held in Brazil there was an increase in international attention. This brought the virus to the headlines.
What exactly is it and what does it do to you?
The Zika virus is a virus that is spread by the bites of a particular type of mosquito, the Aedes mosquito. This is the same mosquito the carries yellow fever and dengue fever. The good news is that Zika virus is not life threatening and the symptoms are usually pretty mild if any at all. Lasting between 2 and 7 days the symptoms are similar to the flu and can include:
Why be concerned?
It is mostly a problem if you are infected while pregnant. The Zika virus is known to cause microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with smaller heads and brains that don't develop properly. According to the WHO, as of January 2016, Brazil reported 3174 cases of microcephaly. Investigations are continuing to determine how many of these cases were caused by the Zika virus.
How to protect yourself
As they say, prevention is better than cure. To lower your risk of getting Zika (or any other mosquito transmitted virus) take the usual precautions to protect yourself from mosquito bites by:
So what should you do if you do get it?
Diagnosis is usually performed by looking at your symptoms, evidence of mosquito bites and recent travel history. Blood, urine and saliva tests can also be performed to confirm an infection. There is no specific treatment for Zika virus, but if you do suspect that you have it, you should look after yourself by getting plenty of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. You can take the usual over the counter medications for pain and fever. Of course, if your symptoms get worse, seek medical advice.
There is nothing conclusive about how long it stays in your system for, but the CDC recommends waiting 8 weeks after symptoms started for women and 6 months for men (the virus stays in semen longer than other body fluids) before trying to conceive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it does not cause problems for future pregnancies, after the virus has left your system.
Countries and regions of South America at risk of Zika
The CDC advises the following South American countries are known Zika virus areas.
Not ALL areas of every country are affected. Check out this Zika map from the CDC to determine exactly which areas put you at risk.
Should you let it prevent you from traveling to South America?
There are all sorts of risks with any kind of travel, to any area. A visit to a travel doctor should be on any traveler's list before taking off, to get the most up-to-date information and relevant vaccinations.
If you are pregnant or have plans to conceive in the same timeframe you visit South America, this is when you need to take extra precaution regarding Zika and plan accordingly.
I have now traveled 6 countries across South America and to date I haven't met one person who has contracted Zika, nor have I met anyone who has been worried about it.
If you take the necessary precautions to protect yourself, you shouldn't let the Zika virus stop you from visiting some of the most beautiful countries in the world.
For further information, check out the official Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page on Zika, as well as the World Health Organisation Zika fact sheet.
Author - Mel Mulry
Mel is a writer and photographer from Australia. With a passion for slow travel and a life philosophy of tiny little moments, she is currently exploring Latin America.