Let’s talk about how to prevent Zika, chikungunya, and other mosquito-borne viruses. Every time we turn on the television or read an online news report, there seems to be another scary reason to make us wary of traveling abroad. Most recently, the Zika virus and its horrible effect on pregnant women’s babies has been making the rounds; microcephaly and infant death are among the most tragic results of an otherwise healthy pregnancy imaginable. The Zika virus has other effects as well; rash, joint paint, fever, and conjunctivitis are common. Now the Zika virus and its cousins, chikungunya and dengue, are not new or newly mutated viruses. Fortunately, they also have a few things in common which simplifies prevention against all three while traveling abroad.
It is really important for us to do our best to prevent contracting these mosquito-borne viruses. The chikungunya virus in particular can be extremely painful. I spoke with Dr. Douglas Morrison, a professor of biological sciences, about his and his wife’s experiences after contracting chikungunya. Dr. Morrison’s wife, Dr. Susan Hagen Morrison, is an infectious diseases specialist; she and her husband have traveled to Haiti on medical missions. Around a year and a half ago, they slipped up once — just once — and today, Dr. Hagen Morrison is still feeling the effects of the virus.
Dr. Morrison said, “Sue and I both contracted chikungunya fever while we were in Haiti. Recent blood tests revealed that both of us have the antibody to CHIKV antibodies in our blood. I ended up in the 12 percent with mild symptoms, but Sue got hit hard — high fever for 3 days, rash from head to toe, and intense joint pain.” A year and a half later, both doctors still have arthritis in their joints. The literature says that in 12 percent of cases the chronic joint and muscle pain lasts for several months, and even years. The disease is highly contagious because the mosquito that carries the virus is smaller and faster than other mosquitoes, quiet, takes only partial blood meals (so visits multiple people rather than “filling up” on one), flies farther and lives three times longer (6 weeks vs. 2 weeks) than most mosquitoes. Dr. Hagen Morrison is telling her surgeon friends not to risk going to the Caribbean to volunteer.
In other words, the chikungunya virus is something to be scared of, just like Zika and dengue viruses. It’s important to know how to prevent Zika, chikungunya, and other mosquito-borne viruses to the best of our abilities!
Ten tips to help prevent Zika, chikungunya, and other mosquito-borne viruses:
1. Use strong insect repellent; DEET is the most recommended, strongest ingredient in insect repellent powerful enough to help avoid attracting mosquitoes.
2. Wear long sleeves, long pants, and avoid open-toes shoes. Yes, in the tropics, we want to wear shorts and tank tops. Save that for the beach. When inland, cover up.
3. Dr. Morrison stressed spraying insect repellent on clothes as well. Pre-treat travel clothes with Permethrin.
4. Stay in a hotel with air conditioning. Home stays are fun and interesting cultural experiences, but hotels can be much more reliably depended upon to use air conditioning rather than open windows and cross ventilation to keep rooms cool.
5. Use mosquito netting. These are easy to buy and pack if you don’t have any laying around (i.e. if you’re like me).
6. Electric fans are recommended by the American Mosquito Control Association because mosquitoes are “weak fliers.” That is to say, even though the Aedes aegypti mosquito (that’s the virus-carrying critter we’re trying to most avoid) is smaller and faster than other mosquitoes, they’re not strong fliers, so aiming a whirring fan at our beds in the tropics will help keep mosquitoes from being able to reach us. Fans also disperse our CO2 (our breath exhalations) which is what most attracts the biters.
7. Avoid standing water. Mosquito larvae live in standing water (like rain buckets, small ponds, etc.) so while it’s not reasonable to expect neighborhoods who collect rainwater to dump it our for our sakes, we can try to steer a clear berth from it and stagnant pools.
8. Critically examine “folk” prevention. For example, some people believe that vitamin B (thiamine) helps prevent bug bites, but the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association reported in 2005 that no scientific studies show a significant repellent ability against mosquitoes. This includes B1 taken orally or in the form of a skin patch. Likewise, Citronella has mixed reviews. I’ve never found our citronella candles to be effective at all.
9. When traveling to the tropics, throw a roll of duct tape in your luggage. It’s an easy way to seal any loose windows or to seal the gaps between our bedroom doors and the floor. This helps keep the mosquitoes away — is there anything duct tape can’t do?
10. Stay vigilant! Dr. Hagen Morrison is an infectious disease specialist; she knows what she’s doing. In just a few minutes on their last day in Haiti, she let down her guard and exposed herself to a virus-bearing mosquito.
The above map shows where there has been active transmission of the Zika virus. Central America, South America, and the Caribbean are current “hot spots,” along with Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga and Cape Verde. The Center for Disease Control recommends that pregnant women avoid traveling to or within these countries if possible. There is no vaccine to prevent infection, or medicine to treat Zika. Here is more information about the Zika virus and pregnancy.
The above map shows where there has been active transmission of the Chikungunya virus. Many countries in Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean have reported cases, along with Italy and France, and Micronesia, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea. There is no vaccine to prevent infection, or medicine to treat chikungunya. Here is more information about the chikungunya virus.
Now, none of this is to say that we shouldn’t travel abroad. True, Dr. Morrison and Dr. Hagen Morrison won’t return to Haiti for medical mission work, but most of us stay in hotels when we vacation. We should incorporate the ten tips regarding how to prevent Zika, chikungunya, and other mosquito-borne viruses when we travel to tropical areas, so that the odds are that the only things we’ll be bringing back from those trips are souvenirs we want, and memories.