For Canadian travellers planning winter getaways south, Zika precautions remain

Topics: Americas, Emergencies and Disasters Worldwide
January 16, 2017

Woman on a beach applies insect repellent to her skin

More than 100,000 people in Latin America have caught the Zika virus (primarily transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes) between 2015 and 2016. Photo: Miguel Domingo GarcÌa / IFRC


As many Canadian travellers consider or prepare for their winter getaways, the battle against Zika virus is not yet over.

Many will recall the headlines Zika made during the 2016 Rio Olympics, when the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in cooperation with the Brazilian Red Cross reached more than one million people through their Zika awareness campaign.

While it is no longer a public health emergency, Zika continues to represent an important public health challenge in the Americas and travellers, especially pregnant women and those planning a pregnancy, should take precautions.

Since the Zika outbreak began in 2015, 48 countries and territories in the Americas have confirmed local vector-borne transmission of Zika virus disease in the region. Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes and 80 per cent of those infected do not show signs of symptoms.

Zika infection is caused by a virus which is primarily spread by the bite of an infected Aedes Aegypti or albopictus mosquitoes – the same type of mosquitoes that spreads dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. Furthermore, the Zika virus can be transmitted through sexual contact. There is no vaccine or medication that protects against Zika virus infection.

Experts agree that Zika virus infection causes congenital syndrome with microcephaly (abnormally small head) in a developing fetus during pregnancy and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a neurological disorder). Several countries have reported cases of microcephaly and Guillian-Barré Syndrome. Brazil, in particular, has reported a significant increase in the number of newborns with microcephaly associated with Zika virus infection.

The Government of Canada recommends that pregnant women and those planning a pregnancy avoid travel to countries or areas in the United States with reported mosquito-borne Zika virus.

All travellers should protect themselves from mosquito bites by taking these precautions:

1)   Cover up:

  • Wear light-coloured, long-sleeved, loose fitting, tucked-in shirts, long pants, shoes or boots (not sandals), and a hat; in tick infested areas, you can also tape the cuffs of your pants or tuck them inside your socks, shoes or boots.

2)   Use insect repellent on exposed skin:

  • In Canada, insect repellents that contain DEET or Icaridin (also known as Picaridin) are the most effective.
  • When travelling to areas with a high risk of diseases spread by insects, reapply repellent when required. If you are being bitten but the time span noted on the label has not ended, it is recommended that you reapply the repellent.

3)   Think about where you’re staying:

  • Stay in a well-screened or completely enclosed air-conditioned room.
  • Avoid staying in poorly constructed housing such as mud, adobe, or thatch (plant stalks or foliage used for roofing) structures. 

4)    Sleep under a bed net, preferably treated with insecticide:

  • Make sure the net is intact (no tears).
  • Tuck it under the mattress.
  • Use for playpens, cribs, or strollers to protect young children.

What the Red Cross is Doing

In the Americas, Red Cross National Societies responded to the Zika outbreak immediately and the IFRC activated regional response mechanisms. As the Canadian Red Cross and Canadian Government have a long-standing presence in the Americas, and have spent years investing in capacity building, the regional and national responses to the Zika outbreak were strengthened.

At the global level, the IFRC has launched a Zika Appeal, which has approximately eight million dollars supporting the Americas.

In addition to financial support, a Zika team has been established to provide technical expertise and tools to support the National Red Cross response in affected countries. The Red Cross has distributed 430,488 mosquito repellents and 15,600 mosquito nets.

Over 3,000 volunteers and Red Cross staff have received training in topics related to Zika interventions, including epidemic control, sanitation and hygiene promotion, and psychosocial support.

By building the capacity of Red Cross National Societies in Honduras, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, there are skilled and trained local Red Cross volunteers and staff preparing for and ready to step in to respond to Zika, and other health epidemics, long before any national or international humanitarian agencies have mobilized for action.