Zika Fears & Why I’m Not Canceling My Colombia Trip

A couple of weeks ago while getting tacos in Harlem, I sat next to a man recently back from Africa, doing health care programs and HIV prevention. Over happy hour tacos, we got on the topic of  Zika, after discussing malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

Me: “So with all your malaria experience, what do you think about Zika?”

Him: “Zika’s a joke. Malaria is one of the leading causes of death worldwide and we’re worried about Zika? They need to cure malaria and stop the hysteria.”

(paraphrased convo)

While I do think people tend to lean towards hysteria when it comes to the rise of certain diseases, I don’t think Zika is a joke.

What is Zika, really? 

By now, we all know what Zika is, but here’s a brief explainer. Zika’s first human case was reported in 1952, in Uganda and Tanzania, and then again in 1968 in Nigeria. The first major outbreak was in 2007, in Micronesia, where there were 185 suspected cases. A bite by a specific mosquito causes the virus, which causes symptoms such as fever, rash and joint pain, usually lasting for a few days to a week. The symptoms begin to show up 2 to 7 days after bitten by the infected mosquito. Only 1 in 5 people that get infected with Zika will get sick and people rarely die of the virus, which likely contributes to why we haven’t heard much about it before.

Zika world map via CDC
Zika world map via CDC

Why do we care now? 

As early as 2014, cases of Zika were reported in the Caribbean and South America. Previously, there were outbreaks in French Polynesia (2013) and the Cook Islands.  Recently, the number of cases has exploded. Brazil has a reported 1.5 million cases of Zika.  There is so much that scientists don’t know about Zika, which is one cause for concern. Scientists are still investigating a link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare immune system disease that can sometimes cause paralysis or death. The effect of Zika on pregnant women is what is most alarming. There are reports of babies are being born with a birth defect called congenital microcephaly – causing abnormally small head size. Previously it was believed by scientists that Zika is rarely transmitted from mom to in-utero baby, but now believe that microcephaly could be linked to the Zika virus.

So what am I supposed to do?

Well, if you’re traveling to an area affected by Zika, make sure you bring mosquito repellent. And I’m not talking about bringing Skin So Soft (sorry, but that stuff doesn’t work!). Repellents that include the chemical Deet are seen as the most effective. I bought Repel on Amazon for my Thailand trip and I was able to stay unbitten the entire time! Check out this chart posted by NPR, which shows which repellents work the best.

Effectiveness of mosquito repellents - which will help prevent Zika
Effectiveness of mosquito repellents

I also recommend you read this NPR article about repellents, as well as their ongoing coverage on Zika. The mosquitoes that carry Zika are aggressive daytime biters, but will also bite at night. In addition to wearing repellent, you can also treat your clothing with Permethrin. Members of the military are often wearing Permethrin treated clothing. A double whammy of repellent and treating your clothes can seem like overkill (I’m sure the mosquitoes can smell you a mile away!) but I would caution that you do your research before doing this.  If you choose to do this, be sure to read this article from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Permethrin treated clothing and it’s safety.

Cancel or nah? 

I have a trip planned to Colombia next month and I’m not canceling, despite the number of Colombians with the virus reaching 25,000. It’s expected that the numbers will reach 600,000 by the end of the outbreak. There’s currently no vaccine or medicine for Zika. Since 2014, Brazil has had 1.4 million cases of Zika, and the first case in Colombia was seen in October of 2015.  It’s worth noting that in summer 2014, Brazil hosted the World Cup – before the disease was widely seen there. Some scientists theorize that the World Cup travelers actually brought Zika to the country.

Many people have been scoffing at people canceling trips in fear of Zika – but everyone’s situation is different. With the risk of birth defects, I completely understand women who are trying to conceive canceling their upcoming trips. What I don’t understand is the entitled, condescending attitudes of some people (especially men) when people state their Zika fears. If you have the choice of doing what’s best for your unborn child, why wouldn’t you reduce all risk as necessary?

While mosquitoes love me (I’ve gotten 17 bites in an hour once!), I’m not concerned enough about Zika to cancel my trip. Colombia has been a dream trip for me for years, and I believe right now is my perfect window to go. Also, unlike some women in my age range, I’m not hoping to conceive any time soon. If you have a trip booked and are willing to take all the necessary precautions, then don’t cancel! You can have the time of your life and may even get cheaper rates from the hoards of travelers canceling their trips.

Cartagena does have some Zika cases - Cartagena via the Tourism Board
Cartagena via the Tourism Board

As of now,  2016 Summer Olympics will still be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on August 5th – 21st. While Zika is a cause for concern, I would be shocked if 1) the Zika outbreak is uncontrollable by the time of the Olympics and 2) if the Olympics are moved or canceled. History has shown that the Olympics are rarely canceled (the summer Olympics were canceled twice, in 1940 and 1944, due to the World Wars), and with the amount of money that the Olympics will bring to Brazil, I’m certain that no country is working harder to find a solution to this outbreak.

So if I don’t travel, I’m okay right?

For now, perhaps! Cases of Zika have been reported in the US, and Zika can also be sexually transmitted. US officials fear that once summer time hits, US Zika infected individuals could be bitten by domestic mosquitoes, thus spreading the disease throughout the USA.

What it all boils down to is this…

  1. If you’re going to travel to a Zika affected area, make sure you do your research.
  2. Make sure you have travel insurance and that it has medical coverage as well.
  3. Zika could be a major outbreak in the USA as well.
  4. You also could be struck by lightning tomorrow.
  5. There are lots of things that could happen and lots of things going on in the world – I wouldn’t say “tempt fate”, but don’t spend your whole life afraid of the “what ifs.”
  6. If you are a pregnant woman or a woman wanting to conceive, don’t let anyone make you feel bad for canceling your travel plans. I cannot stand travel-shaming in all forms and you do what makes YOU feel best.
  7. Mosquitoes are literally the worst – Malaria, Zika, Dengue, Yellow Fever, Chikungunya, West Nile – COME ON!

If you’d like to read up more on Zika, take a look at some of these reliable sources:

Center for Disease Control

CDC Traveler’s Info

NBC News

European Center for Disease Control

World Health Organization

Pan American Health Organization May 2015 report  

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to chilling on this beach next month!

I'll be Zika free in Playa Blanca, Colombia
Playa Blanca, Colombia

UPDATE: So I went and had a blast – I didn’t get a single mosquito bite! Check out the 10 best things I ate in Colombia and a guide to having a great trip to Colombia!

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4 thoughts on “Zika Fears & Why I’m Not Canceling My Colombia Trip

  1. Hi. I’ve been told by my doctor that I need to cancel my trip although I’m not pregnant. I am super bummed about this. We had plans to go to Cartagena, a dream trip of mine. Did you ever feel like you were worried about Zika while you were there? Did you see mosquitos? I’m so torn right now on whether I should cancel.

    1. I didn’t see mosquitoes while I was there, but I’m sure there were some. I used Repel mosquito repellant and didn’t receive a single bite. I made sure to reapply when I got wet and to be thorough in my application. I stayed in luxury accommodations to ensure I’d have air conditioning and wouldn’t need to keep windows open. Zika was on my mind a bit during the trip but not enough to ruin it. I had a great time! Check out my post from after the trip here: http://9to5wanderlust.com/2016/05/06/cartagena-guide/

      I hope you make a decision you’re happy with.

  2. I just got back from Colombia (Cartagena = an absolute DREAM), and managed to land approximately 7 mosquito bites on my right leg (poopers) from the one day I forgot to apply my super-DEET. But– I’m not pregnant, don’t plan to get pregnant in the near future, checked with my doctor as to how long I should wait before I get pregnant (she said 6 months, and I don’t plan to be pregnant anytime soon, so whew), and now I’m just waiting to see if I get sick. I’ve also traveled to Malaysia and Singapore in the past 6 months, where I was also bitten by mosquitoes (I’m mosquito-bait, apparently). In my opinion, as long as you’re a healthy adult, not pregnant, and not planning to be pregnant soon, there’s no reason to be scared of Zika. But then again, I’m not a doctor. 🙂

    1. Agreed! Mosquitoes love me as well, so I feel your pain. Even in Thailand and other countries, I make sure to use Deet so I won’t get dengue or any other mosquito-carried illnesses. I wish I knew the purpose of mosquitoes!

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