Zika virus prompts travel safety precautions

Mikaela Cannizzo

Students considering a spring break trip to Mexico or the Caribbean are advised to take safety precautions against the Zika virus, a relatively new disease spread through mosquito bites.

While no cases of the virus have been reported in the Austin area, Chris Van Deusen, Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson, said cases have been confirmed in Dallas and Houston. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert on Jan. 15 encouraging travelers to take extra precautions in multiple locations including South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

“The virus is transmitted from humans to mosquitos and then onto other people,” Van Deusen said. “Our first line of defense is to obviously protect yourself from mosquito bites if you’re traveling abroad so that you don’t bring the virus back to begin with.”

Van Deusen said travelers should protect themselves by wearing long sleeve shirts and pants, bringing insect repellent and sleeping in areas with screens and air conditioning to prevent mosquitos from entering the room. Once they return to the U.S., travelers should avoid mosquitos for at least a week in order to prevent the virus from spreading, Van Deusen said.

UHS medical director David Vander Straten said the virus is relatively mild, and flu-like symptoms such as fever, rash, muscle aches or pink eye typically remain for only a few days or a week. Vander Straten said patients diagnosed with Zika rarely require hospitalization and most of the time do not show symptoms at all.

However, the infection poses serious concerns for pregnant women, such as early miscarriages or giving birth to a baby with microcephaly, a condition that inhibits development and results in an abnormally small head, Vander Straten said.

“Women who are pregnant or who are considering pregnancy should make sure they try to avoid mosquito bites, and if they are pregnant, they should notify their health care provider upon their return,” Vander Straten said. “If they are able to avoid or postpone their travel until after their pregnancy, that would be great.”

Adrienne Howarth-Moore, director of Human Resource Services, said the University is taking proactive measures to educate students and faculty members about Zika. By posting information in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization, the UHS and International Office websites can keep everyone updated on the virus and how it is affecting travel, Howarth-Moore said.

“Some students may be traveling to the Caribbean for spring break, and that’s definitely going to be a time where anyone traveling should always look at the travel precautions before they travel,” Howarth-Moore said. 

According to the UHS website, Zika virus is most frequently transmitted through mosquito bites. Despite this commonality, the virus’s ability to spread via infected blood makes it possible to contract the disease in other ways.

Texas Department of State Health Services released a report on Tuesday describing a Zika case in Dallas that was most likely the outcome of sexual contact.

Van Deusen said increasing numbers of the virus within the country could lead to public health interventions.

“If we get to a point where we see the virus being transmitted by mosquitos in Texas, there may be steps that can be taken at that point,” Van Deusen said.