Zika virus is now well-known throughout the world, but it was virtually unheard of only months ago. The Pan American Health Organization first warned the people of Brazil about Zika virus in May of last year, and the Brazilian government declared a state of emergency in December. However, news of Zika virus did not become widespread until mid-January 2016 when a Zika-infected baby was born in Hawaii with microcephaly. Soon after, the American media began reporting on the virus, fear spread throughout the United States and the rest of the world, resulting in canceled travel to Central and South America and the Caribbean.
At the end of January, CNN Money published a list of airlines and cruise lines offering to refund or postpone travel for passengers who wished to delay or cancel trips to Zika-impacted areas. Some companies limited their offers to pregnant travelers, while others offered refunds to all. A few days later, in a Feb. 1 Forbes article, travel agencies reported increased cancellations and concerns.
The fear increased yet again only days later when Texas reported the first sexually transmitted case of Zika virus in the United States. Brazil followed this report by confirming Zika’s transmission via a blood transfusion in 2015. In response to these newer reports, WHO admitted a lack of knowledge about the virus and committed to acting quickly to learn more about its transmission and effects. Yesterday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its travel advice for affected areas to include the risk of the virus’s sexual transmission. Also yesterday, CNBC reported a Brazilian researcher found Zika virus in both saliva and urine samples.
Reactions to the threat of Zika virus continue to spread throughout the United States. Florida governor Rick Scott declared health emergencies in Lee, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, and Santa Rosa counties. All four counties have reported travel-related cases of the virus, and Scott wants to ensure his state’s residents are ready.
— Rick Scott (@FLGovScott) February 4, 2016
NBC News reported U.S. universities and companies are reconsidering travel plans, and many that are not canceling events are making travel to Zika-affected areas optional for employees. The public sector is also wary; the U.S. military has offered to relocate pregnant family members to unaffected areas.
“Are you really going to try to run the Olympics this August in the middle of a public health emergency when the country can’t afford to finish the buildings, and has got to take on the mosquitos? Let’s round up the kids and go watch discus in the Zika epidemic? Such a proposition would be like a family saying, ‘Let’s visit Chernobyl to enjoy the Olympics!'”
For many would-be travelers, the lack of information about Zika virus is the main source of fear. As affected countries issue warnings to women to delay pregnancies for anywhere from six months to two years, fear builds. Many see the advice as a way for public health officials to buy time to learn more about the virus and its possible effects.
Until virologists understand more about the virus, the length of time it remains in the body and its exact connection to microcephaly, travelers will, rightfully, continue to be wary. As more medical experts like Dr. Caplan voice their concerns, travel to affected areas may continue to dwindle, and countries with tourism-dependent economies may suffer. As for the Olympics, will the show go on?
[Photo by Felipe Dana/AP Images]