Recently, one of the biggest headlines to hit news agencies in the USA, Europe, South America, and elsewhere has been that of the Zika virus. Although the virus has been known since 1947, it didn’t really make international news until 2016 after the WHO (World Health Organization) published a “public health emergency of international concern” in early February, 2016. The WHO made this statement after studies showed a much higher than normal incidence of microcephaly among newborns in Brazil, and that the cases of microcephaly were probably associated with the Zika virus.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the news has probably heard this already so what about Ecuador? Is this South American country also affected by the Zika virus? Not to mention, what exactly is the Zika virus? We hope that the following information will answer questions and concerns about this virus, especially related to travel to Ecuador.
What is the Zika virus and why haven’t we heard of it before?
This virus is in the same family as several other mosquito-borne viruses including the ones that cause Yellow Fever, Dengue, and Chikungunya. It was actually discovered in the Zika forest of Uganda, Africa in 1947 but hasn’t made major headlines until now for a few reasons. Since the Zika virus is not lethal and does not cause grave symptoms (and 80% of people are believed to not show symptoms), few scientists studied the virus compared to Malaria or other, more dangerous diseases. Also, the virus was not known to occur in many areas, and so did not seem to have as much as an impact as other diseases.
How is it transmitted?
The main way that people get the Zika virus is after being bitten by a mosquito that carries it. The mosquitoes known to transmit the virus are Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, two mosquito species that mostly feed on and live among people. Recent studies have shown that the virus can also be transmitted from pregnant mothers to their babies, and by sexual intercourse with an infected person. It has also been found in saliva and urine but is not known if a viable virus can be transmitted from these fluids.
What happens if you have Zika?
Most people who have the Zika virus are believed to not show any symptoms. The 20% of infected people who do show symptoms of the Zika virus have a fever, joint pains, conjunctivitis, and a rash for around three days. In general, the symptoms resemble those of a mild flu accompanied by a rash. Since those same symptoms can also be produced by other viruses and end after a few days, infection with Zika could be easily overlooked. Given the recent information about Zika probably causing more health problems than expected, anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor straight away.
If the virus only caused such mild symptoms, it probably wouldn’t have made the news. However, since it appears to be linked to a higher incidence of microcephaly, and may also be associated with a higher incidence of Guillain-Barre syndrome, there is more cause for concern. The cases of microcephaly (much smaller than normal skulls) in babies have happened with mothers who had the Zika virus while they were pregnant, and those babies were also shown to be infected with the virus after they were born.
Where does it occur? In Ecuador?
Outbreaks of the Zika virus have occurred in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In 2015, cases were found in Brazil, and then in several other countries in South and Central America. Recently, cases of Zika virus were also found in Hawaii and Texas in people who had either traveled to Brazil or had sexual intercourse with someone who had been to Brazil.
Although the virus has been found in Ecuador, according to the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism, it has only been found in a few provinces, does not appear to be widespread, and efforts are being made to control mosquitoes in many areas.
Is it safe to travel to Ecuador?
For most travelers, this is the biggest question. According to the WHO, “There should be no restrictions on travel or trade with countries or areas with Zika virus transmission”.
They also mentioned that “Travellers to areas with Zika virus transmission should be provided with up to date advice on potential risks and appropriate measures to reduce the possibility of exposure to mosquito bites”.
In other words, the WHO believes that travelers to Ecuador (and Brazil, where the chance of catching Zika is much higher) shouldn’t cancel their trip but should be aware of how to avoid being bit by mosquitoes. In fact, since the mosquitoes that can carry Zika probably do not occur above 2,000 meters, most montane areas of the country are probably free of the virus in any case.
This conclusion is echoed by the USA Center for Disease Control in their recommendation for a Level Two Alert that advises “travel with enhanced precautions”. In other words, they suggest taking precautions to avoid mosquito bites as well as using a condom during sexual relations with males. They also advise pregnant women to consider postponing their trips and to consult their physician before going on the trip.
How to prevent Zika
Although researchers are working on a vaccine, it isn’t expected to be available for at least ten years. In the meantime, the main defense against Zika lies in precaution against mosquito bites. If you are traveling to any area with mosquitoes (in Ecuador, this could mean most areas of the country, but especially areas below 2,000 meters), you could use use long sleeves and long pants, DEET repellent, permethrin treated clothing, and sleep in screened rooms, rooms with air conditioning, or under mosquito nets.