Zika Virus: What is it?

What is Zika virus and what countries are affected? Travellers are advised to take precautions when leaving Australia for overseas trips. Pregnant women are warned to avoid infected countries and discuss unavoidable travel with their doctor.

What is Zika virus?

On 1 February 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a state of public health emergency for the mosquito-borne Zika Virus currently reported in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Pacific.

Australians who are travelling overseas anytime in the next year should read the known list of infected countries below and take the recommended travel precautions.

The Zika Virus on its own is mild and not clinically serious, and does not result in hospitalisation. However, Zika Virus in pregnant women has been potentially linked to microcephaly cases in babies, making it a chilling threat. Microcephaly is a disease that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, causing brain damage.

Larger than usual numbers of affected babies are currently being born in Brazil, and previously in Polynesia in 2014. WHO aims to halt these microcephaly clusters with a massive effort to prevent pregnant women being bitten by mosquitoes.

In terms of Zika infection overall, WHO estimates Brazil has seen 1.5 million cases so far and local authorities are working hard to stem the epidemic. Researchers in Brazil and the United States have told WHO it will take 3-5 years to develop a vaccine against the virus. For this reason, everyone who travels to infected areas is at ongoing risk and must be careful to take the precautions below.

Key facts about Zika Virus

  • This disease is caused by a virus transmitted by Aedesmosquitoes, the same beast responsible for transmitting dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. These mosquitoes bite all day but particularly around dawn and dusk.
  • The best way to prevent the virus is to protect against being bitten by mosquitoes.
  • Symptoms usually involve a mild fever, skin rash (exanthema), and conjunctivitis. In some cases symptoms can also include severe headache, joint pain, and muscle or bone pain. Symptoms normally last for 2-7 days. However, 4 out of 5 infected people do not show any symptoms.
  • There is currently no specific treatment or vaccine available.
  • The incubation period from infection (exposure) to symptoms appearing is currently unproven, but appears to be only a few days.

What countries are affected by Zika virus?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Zika Virus was first seen in 1947 in Ugandan rhesus monkeys, by scientists studying sylvatic yellow fever. It broke the animal-human barrier in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania.

Outbreaks of Zika Virus have primarily appeared in tropical Africa (1950s onward), South-East Asia, and the Pacific Islands (2007, 2013-present), and now in Central and South America (2015-present).

Travellers are advised to avoid the following areas, where Zika Virus transmission is ongoing as of August 2016:

Continent/Geographical Region Country/Province
Central America & the Caribbean
  • Anguilla
  • Antigua & Barbuda
  • Aruba
  • Barbados
  • Belize
  • Bonaire
  • Costa Rica
  • Cuba
  • Curaçao
  • Dominican Republic
  • El Salvador
  • Grenada
  • Guadeloupe
  • Guatemala
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Jamaica
  • Martinique
  • Mexico
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Puerto Rico
  • Saba
  • St. Barthélemy
  • St. Lucia
  • St. Vincent & the Grenadines
  • Saint Martin
  • Sint Eustatius
  • Sint Maarten
  • Trinidad & Tobago
  • Turks & Caicos Islands
  • US Virgin Islands
North America
  • USA
South America
  • Argentina
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • French Guiana
  • Guyana
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Suriname
  • Venezuela
  • Bangladesh
  • Cambodia
  • Indonesia
  • Laos
  • Malaysia
  • Maldives
  • Philippines
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam
  • Cabo Verde
  • Gabon
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Cook Islands
  • Fiji
  • French Polynesia
  • Marshall Islands
  • Micronesia
  • New Caledonia
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Samoa
  • Solomon Islands
  • Tonga
  • Vanuatu

Travellers should also remember that any neighbouring country to an infected country may also soon be affected, because the disease is easily transmitted across borders by mosquitoes.

Travel advice for Australian tourists going overseas

  1. Don’t go if you are pregnant. Pregnant women in any trimester are strongly advised not to visit any countries with ongoing infections until more is known about Zika virus. If you have travel insurance, you can make a claim to get back the money you lose by cancelling plans.
  2. Subscribe to updates on the virus’ progress, with the Australian government’s SmartTraveller website.
  3. Register your travel plans. Australians register with DFAT.
  4. Take all precautions to prevent mosquito bites (see below).
  5. Get the right travel insurance to protect you while you’re overseas (compare your options with Canstar).

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How to prevent mosquito bites

The following precautions are recommended and necessary during the day as well as at night time:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Wear light colours if possible because mosquitoes are attracted to bright or dark colours.
  • Use insect repellents containing DEET or picaridin. If wearing sunscreen or make-up, put repellent on over the top. These repellents are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children older than 2 months when used according to instructions.
  • Put repellent on your clothes and gear as well, such as boots, pants, socks, and tents.
  • Use mosquito nets over your bed.
  • Stay and sleep in screened or air-conditioned rooms.
  • Avoid pools of still water because this is where mosquitoes breed and leave larvae.

After coming home from overseas

There are currently no reported cases of the Zika Virus in Australia, and it is vital that we prevent the transmission of the disease entering the country. The Australian government monitors all international airports and marine ports of entry to keep out infected mosquitoes or cargo.

You can avoid bringing Zika Virus back home by following all of the recommended ways of preventing mosquito bites while overseas.

If you feel sick while you are away or when you come back, see a doctor as soon as possible and mention your recent travel to an infected area.

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Other mosquito-borne diseases you can catch

Many other mosquito-borne diseases can be caught overseas in warm climates and brought home, such as malaria, dengue fever, Yellow Fever, chikungunya, and Japanese encephalitis. We can even pick up a few here at home, such as Ross River Virus and Barmah Forest Virus, so taking precautions is important all year round.

Take special care to avoid mosquitoes to prevent disease when travelling to the following hotspots:

  • Malaria: Africa, South and Central America, Asia, Pacific Islands.
    Serious, potentially fatal.
    Many effective anti-malarial medications exist and you must visit a doctor to get a prescription. These medications should be taken before, during, and after travel in order to be effective.
  • Dengue Fever: Africa, South and Central America, South-East Asia, the Pacific Islands, Australia.
    Serious, potentially fatal if complications occur or the patient is young. Symptoms can last for 2 weeks or longer.
  • Yellow Fever: Africa, South and Central America, the Caribbean.
    Serious, potentially fatal.
    Some airlines require you to provide your vaccination certificate in order to board a flight out of an infected country. Australian Quarantine will require you to provide your vaccination certificate when your plane arrives home at the end of your trip.
  • Kunjin/West Nile Virus: Africa, Eastern Europe, West Asia, Middle East, Australia (especially WA and NT).
    Mild symptoms, with rare complications of meningitis or encephalitis.
  • Chikungunya Virus: Africa, South-East Asia, India, Indian Ocean Islands.
    Non-fatal, but serious symptoms can last for 2 weeks or longer.
  • Japanese Encephalitis Virus: Japan (rural areas), Asia (especially China, Korea, Indonesia, Eastern Russia), Australia (Northern Queensland, especially Torres Strait and Cape York).
    Mild symptoms, with rare fatal complications of meningitis or encephalitis.
    Two vaccines are currently available in Australia. The risk is very low for visitors to urban centres; however, travellers to rural areas are at high risk and should take the vaccine.
  • Murray Valley Encephalitis Virus: Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia (northern WA and NT).
    Serious, potentially fatal if disease reaches brain or spinal cord.
  • Ross River Virus: Australia (wide-spread).
    Non-fatal, but serious and debilitating symptoms continue for a year or longer.
  • Barmah Forest Virus: Australia (wide-spread).
    Non-fatal, but serious and debilitating symptoms continue for a year or longer.

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