Spread of Zika virus poses potential threat to local travelers

Marquand and her fiancé are among local travelers planning a trip to an area infected with Zika virus.
© 2015 Cusick

Marquand and her fiancé are among local travelers planning a trip to an area infected with Zika virus. © 2015 Cusick

Mackenzie Amunden

By Mackenzie Amundsen

Abbey Marquand has booked her honeymoon to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, after her June wedding. Located 45 minutes south of Cancun, the destination currently remains free of the Zika virus.

“I would cancel our plans if it affected the area directly, because that threatens my future of having a family,” Marquand said.

Marquand and her fiancé are among local travelers planning a trip to an area infected with Zika virus. © 2015 Cusick
Abbey Marquand and her fiancé Isaac Cusick are among local travelers planning a trip to an area infected with Zika virus.
© 2015 Britta Cusick

According to the World Health Organization, this year more than 13 countries have reported infections of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness with potential links to other serious health complications such as birth defects and paralysis.

“From Aruba to Venezuela and every country in between, there is some health concern for travelers,” said Denise Petricka, president of Higgins Travel Leaders in Eau Claire.

As winter weather inspired some Eau Claire residents to escape to a more tropical climate, the Center for Disease Control urged travelers to take precautionary measures against mosquito bites to prevent the spread of the Zika virus.

Zika virus is not a new illness. The first reports of the Zika virus in humans came in 1952 from Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. According to the World Health Organization, outbreaks of the Zika virus have been documented in Africa, Asia, Central America, South America and the Pacific.

“When the number of cases increase beyond what would normally be expected, they say that’s an epidemic,” said Mel Kantor, faculty chair of the Institute for Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “It’s not like there is a single special number.”

Areas with epidemic levels of Zika virus include parts of Central and South America, specifically Brazil. Aedes mosquitoes transmit the virus into the human bloodstream with a single bite. Because it is a type of mosquito that thrives in tropical areas, researchers do not believe the virus will disappear any time soon.

Petricka says her agency recommends travelers heading to potential Zika virus hotspots be proactive and invest in mosquito medication. However, she does not believe the epidemic has had a major impact on clients traveling to affected areas.

“I still have a list of people traveling to Brazil for the Olympics,” said Petricka. “Many of these people are older and don’t have the same health concerns as younger travelers hoping to have children.”

Birth defects associated with the Zika virus are a primary concern for young people traveling to affected areas. Microcephaly is a rare condition affecting the head circumference of newborn babies. Babies with microcephaly may develop physical and cognitive disabilities in the future. The health complication cannot be detected in most prenatal testing.

Microcephaly targets the development of unborn babies while children and adults with the Zika virus could become paralyzed. The paralysis of the nervous system is part of a rare condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome. The condition causes a person’s immune system to attack his or her motor and sensory nerves located near the spinal cord. Adult men are more susceptible to the health risk, but people of all ages can be affected.

According to Kantor, epidemiologists look for associations between diseases. Although correlation does not equal causation, he says correlations in health patterns lead to more preventative measures.

“Health officials are saying, ‘Let’s err on the side of caution. There seems to be a very tight association between the two. We don’t know for certain that there’s a causation, but let’s be careful. Let’s be cautious,’” said Kantor.

At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Study Abroad Coordinator Colleen Marchwick has been advising students planning to study abroad in areas with the Zika virus to read more information on the topic.

“Because everybody has their own medical concerns that are unique to them, when a medical issue comes out abroad, it affects different people in different ways,” Marchwick said. “I see part of our role is to educate the students, so they can explore the issue as it applies to them.”

Although the major concern with the disease is its potential risk specifically to pregnant women, Marchwick says that the odds of a study abroad student falling into that category are not unlikely.

“It’s not unthinkable that a study abroad student could be pregnant or get pregnant,” Marchwick said. “It’s good that they are aware so that they can make the right choices.”

With multiple programs in Central and South America, Marchwick has not heard of any students deciding not to study abroad because of the risk posed by the Zika virus. Marchwick, Petricka, and Kantor agree that although the increased media attention can create hysteria, it provides the urgency necessary to find a cure.

“There’s a certain element of responsibility both for public health professionals and the media to communicate information accurately and factually to the public so that they can make good decisions,” said Kantor.

Petrika says that American Airlines and Delta are among a number of commercial transit companies offering full refunds to travelers like Marquand who may be canceling a trip because of Zika virus concerns.

“Even though our honeymoon hotel and flights are booked, they would be easily refundable if we decide to cancel for health reasons,” says Marquand.

Kantor said he believes that knowledge about worldwide health concerns gives power to travelers seeking to escape the Eau Claire winter. He says the Zika virus isn’t the first epidemic, and it won’t be the last.

“As the world has gotten smaller, we are more globally aware than we have been in the past.”