At a meeting of the World Health Assembly Monday, Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, explained what’s caused the spike in Zika virus in blunt terms: governments ending mosquito control programs and failing “to provide even the most basic family planning assistance to young women.” This lack of adequate care for the world's poor and females has led to a global disease outbreak that's creeping northward into the United States.
According to NBC News, Brazilian epidemiologists have been beating a similar drum for months: the country eliminated the mosquitoes that carry Zika, as well as other diseases like dengue, in the 1970s and then discontinued eradication and prevention programs, allowing the pests to return.
The U.S. government is currently embroiled in a dead-end fight over funding for Zika preparations and the situation is only growing more dire: currently there are 157 pregnant woman in America who have tested positive for Zika, according to the CDC, and experts believe that number will only go up as summer approaches. The virus is even threatening to have a major impact on the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio.
Experts have warned that it was only a matter of time before American children are born with Zika-related microcephaly and other birth defects. There are a number of drug manufacturers working toward a Zika vaccine, but those won't be viable options until sometime in 2017, at the earliest. There are also some radical ideas out there to curb mosquito populations like releasing genetically modified mosquitoes bred to have "lethal genes" that would kill offspring before it can mature. That too will take time.
So, with no vaccine available, super science being constrained by time, and mosquito season following on the heels of the calendar turning over to the summer months, what can you do to avoid contracting the Zika virus? A lot, actually.
The areas in purple above are the transmission risk areas. South America and the Caribbean have the worst of it right now, but, especially with new cases coming to the United States, that purple is going to slowly creep north. All together there are 46 countries and territories where you can catch Zika, and almost all of them are popular vacation destinations for Americans.
So, to stay relatively safe, avoid areas where Zika is present. The CDC regularly updates its notes about which places have higher levels of infection, so check with them before or after you've booked your trip.
Luckily for American travelers, many of the top airlines and cruise ship companies that provide service to these areas are taking steps to work with customers who are having second thoughts about their trips. Several airlines are offering full refunds, or chances to reschedule, for all customers, while others are only offering refunds to select locations, with some even requiring a doctor's note.
Most of the hotels in affected areas are not offering refunds, but some are considering case-by-case waivers. Your best best is to call up customer service if you considering postponing or changing your trip and see what their policies are.
This is simplistic, but that's the best way to avoid getting Zika. According to the Center for Disease Control, the mosquitoes that carry Zika mostly bite during the daytime. They also spread dengue fever and chikungunya viruses, it is really in your best interest to not get bitten.
There are a lot of ways to do this, and best practice would be to combine many different methods. You don't have to invest in a hazmat suit, but wearing long sleeves and pants is a solid start. The Mormon Church just got in on this by declaring it appropriate for women on missions to wear slacks while in areas where Zika is prevalent. Further, the FDA has declared clothes that feature permethrin, a synthetic insecticide, are safe for women and children.
The mosquitoes carrying Zika are attracted to feet, as well, so shoes and socks are going to be a better bet than sandals.
After you're dressed, pick up a spray repellant containing any of these ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-diol. The CDC says that these repellants, especially those with DEET which has something of a negative reputation, are safe for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding when used correctly. This means no repellants based on oils, like citronella candles because their efficacy isn't entirely known.
It should go without saying, but remember to follow the application instructions closely—don't apply directly to the skin, etc.
The Zika-carrying skeeters love the daytime and shade, so they don't mind coming indoors. To stop them, make sure your windows and screens are not damaged, and don't leave doors open.
You should also be mindful and clear away any and all standing water (inside and out). Mosquitoes can lay their eggs at the bottom of a glass of water, so empty and clean containers like vases or flowerpots that hold water regularly.
Inside, use air conditioning, if possible. The recirculating air confuses the insects and makes it more difficult for them to track things to bite. Mosquitoes love carbon dioxide and heat, two things that our bodies produce regularly; AC helps keep these levels low. For that reason, exercise indoors.
If air conditioning isn't available, a ceiling fan can work in a similar fashion to recirculate air, but it would probably also be worth investing in a mosquito net to go over your bed. A mosquito net is an absolute must if you plan to sleep outdoors.
Lastly, use insecticides inside and outdoors. You'll need a good spray for outdoor areas, and an anti-larval for any standing water areas you cannot clear, and an indoor fogger will do the trick inside your home.
The CDC has a guide to creating your own Zika prevention kit here.
Shortly after Zika started making waves, we learned that it could be transmitted sexually from men to their partners. If a man had contracted Zika while traveling, he could spread it to a partner back in the U.S. or elsewhere. It's unknown how long it stays in semen, though one instance showed traces 62 days after symptoms showed up, but it is longer than it stays in blood. That means even if you're no longer showing symptoms, you could still pass it through sex. Knowing this, it's important to use condoms (correctly) at all times, and that might mean putting off plans to get pregnant. This goes for intercourse and oral sex.
If you are pregnant and your sexual partner has recently been in a Zika hotzone, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
Can you still spread Zika even if you're not currently in a sexual relationship or actively having sex?
Yes! If you've contracted it while traveling or living in an area where transmission is happening, the virus can be passed to a non-carrying mosquito in another location, thus creating a new Zika-carrying mosquito. It's screwed up, so circle back to the ways to avoid bites above. The CDC recommends taking those precautions for three weeks after returning from your trip.
Capping her address to the World Health Assembly, Dr. Chan noted that one of the only ways "to protect women of childbearing age" was offer similar advice as above. However, she warned "Zika reveals an extreme consequence of the failure to provide universal access to sexual and family planning services. Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest proportion of unintended pregnancies anywhere in the world."
Condoms are expensive in certain parts of South America, which is why there have been so many recent news reports about the huge number of condoms being sent to the Olympics. Charities have a long history of sending condoms to areas where sexually transmitted diseases are running rampant, donating to one of those would could send more condoms to Zika-affected places. If you want to have fun while helping out, here are four condom brands that donate their products to the developing world with every purchase.
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