If you haven’t heard much yet about Zika, you will.
Zika, a virus spread through mosquitoes, is affecting residents in Mexico and Puerto Rico among two dozen other countries throughout South and Central America and the Caribbean. Its rapid spread, described as “explosive” by the World Health Organization, prompted an emergency meeting at the health organization on Monday to figure out whether Zika constitutes an international public health emergency.
Health officials say it’s probably only a matter of time before Zika cases begin appearing and spreading in the southern United States, though the U.S. has a much better system of mosquito control. The New York State Department of Health has reported seven people infected with the virus, including one in Monroe County, after they traveled to countries where the virus is spreading.
So should you be worried? Or cancel your mid-winter escape trip to the Caribbean or Cancun?
The short answer is, probably not. Unless you’re pregnant.
“If you’re not pregnant or considering becoming pregnant in the near future, it’s not a significant health concern,” said Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein. “We believe four out of five people who are infected with the Zika virus do not develop symptoms, and the symptoms are considered mild.”
Zika cannot be transmitted through casual contact, only through bites from a tropical mosquito species known as Aedes albopictus, which does not live in this region, according to the state Department of Health. The species lives in warm-weather countries. Within New York, this mosquito species also is found in New York City and six other downstate counties.
Burstein called a local outbreak of Zika unlikely.
Moreover, like the West Nile virus transmitted by local mosquitoes, few of those infected by the Zika virus ever show symptoms.
Those who do may suffer from fever and other symptoms, like muscle pain and eye redness. These symptoms rarely require hospitalization and usually go away on their own after a few days, officials said.
But Zika has been linked to high rates of birth defects among women living in Brazil, the country considered at the heart of the Zika outbreak since May. The virus has been associated with babies being born with microcephaly, which affects the growth of babies’ heads and brains.
For that reason, health officials discourage pregnant women from traveling to countries affected by the Zika outbreak.
That includes the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which issued an advisory to its members last week.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently lists 24 countries that have active Zika virus transmission.
Alice Young, a travel consultant with the Elliott Travel Agency in Kenmore, said the winter season remains a popular time for local residents to travel to the Caribbean and Mexico. But she said one pregnant client canceled a trip, and another decided against a Caribbean trip and is making arrangements to travel elsewhere.
Many airlines, including American, United and Delta, are allowing pregnant women and their traveling companions to cancel their flights without penalty if they are traveling to a country listed on the CDC list and provide a doctor’s note. Several cruise lines that travel to countries affected by Zika are making similar accommodations and rebookings.
Young said that if recreational travelers are vacationing in a country where Zika is active, they probably want to avoid excursions in the rain forest in favor of beaches where the breezes deter flying pests.
“Beaches are safer,” Young said. “I’ve never been bit and I go every year.”
Health officials remain worried about the impact of Zika cases in Brazil, where more than 1 million cases have been recorded, as well as the unprecedented number of babies born with microcephaly. Some fear those attending the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro could further spread the Zika virus internationally.
Anyone with concerns about the Zika virus should speak with a physician or visit the CDC website for more information.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.