The Zika virus has international travellers worried. So should you cancel your tickets or stay the course?
Here’s what you need to know about Zika (and probably don’t): The virus has claimed three lives (in Colombia); It’s been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO) but you are currently at no risk of contracting it in India; and there have been no outbreaks ever reported here.
There is, of course, another way you could be at risk: If you plan to head to South America either for the summer Olympics in Rio, or to see the sights, or both.
“We have received frantic calls from people who are travelling internationally to know whether they will contract the illness. So obviously, there is some concern among people,” says a senior doctor (name withheld on request, since he is not authorised to speak to the media) from the department of medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi.
Among those making calls to their doctors was Bhavna Rujute, 38, and her husband Dheeraj, 45, who booked tickets to Rio just days before the Zika virus hit the news in May. The couple is headed there in August, for the Olympics.
The Rujutes have spoken to doctors, both in Mumbai and in Rio, and to locals in Brazil whom they connected with online. “They all agree that the real threat is to children and pregnant women,” says Bhavna, a Mumbai-based finance consultant. “So we thought, why not go ahead? Our tickets are refundable, but we’ve done our research and we see no need to cancel. There will always be some reason to not travel to an offbeat location, and you can’t live in fear.”
People tend to overstate a country’s problems, whether they are political or medical, she adds.
An informed decision is difficult, says Dr Om Srivastava, Jaslok Hospital’s consultant for infectious diseases. “There isn’t enough information about the virus at the moment,” he adds.
Dr Jagdish Prasad, director general of health services in the union ministry of health and family welfare, says that the government has issued a set of detailed guidelines via the health ministry website .
“Since the virus is suspected to be linked with birth-related defects in babies, we suggest that women, especially pregnant women, take necessary precautions,” he adds. “For our part, we have strengthened surveillance systems to ensure the virus does not enter or spread in India.”
The number of people travelling to these destinations from India is already low, so travel companies are not seeing many cancellations, for now.
“We do anticipate an impact in the long-term, but our summer 2016 departures have not seen any cancellations so far,” says Rajeev D Kale, president and chief operating officer at Thomas Cook India. “We continue to receive queries for the 2016 Olympics.”
Sudeepta Sanyal, founder of travel start-up The Blueberry Trails, says that she’s seen one cancellation by a customer who was planning to go to South America. “She didn’t want to take a risk with her health after hearing about the Zika virus,” she says.
Back to the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, there’s a reason it sounds familiar. This is the same mosquito also carries dengue and chikungunya, which are relatively common diseases in India during the monsoon.
WHO officials have expressed concerns that if the disease spread to Asia, the climate would promote its spread. The warm and humid climate of India, for instance, is an ideal breeding ground for the Aedes Aegypti mosquito that carries the virus.
And as a country with a very high birth rate, an outbreak would stand to affect far more pregnancies.
Since the start of this outbreak in Brazil last May, the disease is suspected to have caused babies to be born with microcephaly (an abnormal and incurable smallness of the head often accompanied by brain damage) and has spread to 33 countries and territories in South and Central America.
Some, like Venezuela, have advised women not to try to conceive until 2017.
The best way to prevent the outbreak is by stepping up the surveillance; not just at the international airports and ports but also at high-risk areas in the country.
“We will be asking paediatricians from across the country to notify us if they spot any cases of microcephaly,” says Dr Soumya Swaminathan, director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
*The Zika virus gets its name from the Zika forest of Uganda, where the virus was first isolated in 1947.
*The disease is similar to dengue and chikungunya in that they all are borne by the same mosquito, Aedes Aegypti, and cause the same symptoms — fever, head and body ache, joint pain, skin rashes, conjunctivitis etc.
*The Zika virus also doesn’t have a specific treatment course and, like dengue and chikungunya, doctors prescribe symptomatic treatment.
Fever and body pain
Should you travel to an affected area?
The government advises non-essential travel to the affected countries to be deferred/cancelled, especially pregnant women or those expected to be.
Persons with diabetes, hypertension, chronic respiratory illness, or any immune disorders should seek advice from a doctor, before they travel to an affected country.
Pregnant women who have travelled to areas with Zika virus transmission should share with their gynaec during ante-natal visits in order to be assessed and monitored appropriately.
Travellers suffering from any kind of fever within two weeks of return from an affected country should see a doctor.
Precautions to take in case you do
Use mosquito repellants such as creams, gels, electronic mosquito repellants, patches, and incense sticks.
Use bed nets.
Dress appropriately and cover most of your body parts.
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