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Travellers shrugging but Zika still here

Associated Press logo Associated Press 23/02/2017 Beth J Harpaz

Zika hasn't gone away, but as the mosquito-borne virus has faded from the headlines, travellers seem less concerned about it than they were last year.

"We had a big downturn in honeymoon business last year," said Hans Pfister, who owns the Lapa Rios Lodge in Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula. This year, he says, "is the opposite".

"A real boom of honeymooners. I guess everybody is catching up. We don't get asked questions anymore. Right now is the dry season and it is not an issue. When the rainy season starts again, we stick with our recommendation that if you are pregnant, don't come."

He theorised that ever since Zika was detected in Florida, "it lost some of its scariness".

Another reason Zika headlines have faded is because mosquitoes are less prevalent in late autumn and winter, but "we're entering into the phase where the season might be picking up," said Bryan Lewis, a research associate professor at Virginia Tech's Biocomplexity Institute. "This time last year was when it was starting to take off."

And just because Zika "has fallen off the radar" doesn't mean travellers shouldn't be vigilant, said Dr Kristy Murray, director of Texas Children's Hospital's Laboratory for Viral and Zoonotic Diseases.

With mosquito season coming up in many regions, "we are worried about new introductions and local transmission", she said. "If anyone is pregnant or planning to become pregnant, then it is wise to discourage travel to areas where Zika is currently being transmitted, particularly southern Texas and Florida, Mexico into Central America, South America, and the Caribbean."

Babies born to women infected with Zika are at risk for microcephaly and other birth defects. The virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person.

Some travellers say that even though they're not staying out of the Zika zone, they're taking steps to avoid mosquito bites.

Tanner Callais, who runs a cruise website called Cruzely.com, is planning a cruise with a stop in the Yucatan. "Before, we wouldn't have given mosquitoes a second of thought," he said. "But because we have a nine-month old and have thought about having another child in the near future, we're packing plenty of insect repellent."

Megan Snedden just returned from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. "I knew already what I was getting myself into before going, but figured Zika was a lesser concern for me because I'm not trying to get pregnant," she said. She and her travel companion got plenty of bites despite using repellent. "When we got home we were sending each other messages like, 'I'm so itchy. Oh God, do you think I have Zika?' Half-joking, but also with that slight bit of worry."

Steve Loucks, spokesman for Travel Leaders Group, said his company's travel agents "routinely advise our clients that while Zika does not pose a threat to most people, anyone who is pregnant or wishing to become pregnant should avoid travelling to areas where Zika has been confirmed".

Travellers seeking sunshine might consider Hawaii, southern California and Arizona as alternate spring-break destinations, Loucks said.

Standard advice from the US Centers for Disease Control for travellers heading to Zika destinations includes wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and using mosquito repellent. Similar guidance holds for travellers to any region where other mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue fever are endemic. The CDC specifically advises pregnant women to avoid travel to Zika zones, to protect themselves from bites if they are in Zika-affected areas, and to protect themselves from infection during sex if their partners have been in Zika zones.

A survey of travellers' concerns from TravelZoo found that Zika ranked lower than any number of security concerns for Americans planning holidays this spring, with terrorism, anti-American sentiment, and political unrest, along with crime and personal safety among the top negative factors impacting their booking choices.

The CDC reports more than 5,000 cases of Zika in the US Most were travellers returning from affected areas, but 220 people were infected by mosquitoes in Florida and Texas, and 72 were infected in other ways, including sexual contact with an infected person. More than 37,000 cases of Zika have been reported in US territories, including Puerto Rico.

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