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Zika: Pregnant women stricken; travelers play it safe

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Students from Brigham Young University enjoy Mérida's Cathedral and Mayan actors. Photo: Study Abroad 101
Students from Brigham Young University enjoy Mérida’s Cathedral and Mayan actors. Photo: Study Abroad 101

Zika cases are on the uptick, leaving some travelers unfazed, but alarming numerous residents who are pregnant.

Students and faculty from Brigham Young University in Utah, for example, have not changed their plans to study abroad. 

Yucatán state ranks fifth in confirmed Zika cases this year, with 70 new cases confirmed in the last week. So travelers are arriving prepared.

Gregory Thompson, a professor of Spanish pedagogy at BYU, recently returned with his family from a study abroad program in Mérida. He said students receive a briefing on all types of concerns, Zika being one of them.

Thompson said he did as much research as he personally could on Zika and still felt safe taking his family and his students to Mexico. 

“I think a large part of it is just educating students,” Thompson told the BYU student publication The Daily Universe.

Public health major Paige Oliver, who went to Panama,  had to sign a waiver from BYU acknowledging she knew about the virus and that she was putting herself at risk. Oliver said having a prior knowledge of the Zika virus didn’t really affect her study abroad experience.

“I just wore more insect repellent. Like a lot of repellent,” Oliver said.

Pregnant women test positive

And of the 70, pregnant women undergoing routine testing for the virus account for 59 cases.

The virus has been connected to microcephaly, or underdeveloped brains, in newborns.

The states with the most cases of Zika in Mexico are Veracruz, with 1,213; Guerrero, with 763; Chiapas, with 714; Oaxaca, with 483, and Yucatan, with 449.  As of Oct. 10, there has been a total of 4,306 cases of Zika in Mexico, almost half of them pregnant mothers, the group most likely to be tested.

The Zika virus can be found in the blood up to a week after a bite. An infected person can spread the virus through sexual contact, doctors say.

“Always try to avoid insects because many people get infected without knowing it and can unknowingly pass it on through sexual transmission,” said Assunta Uffer-Marcolongo, president of the nonprofit International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers.

There is no vaccine or specific treatment for Zika, only a regimen of rest and acetaminophen or paracetamol to control fever. 

To avoid infection, the Ministry of Health of Yucatán (SSY) recommends using mosquito repellent, dressing in long sleeves and pants that are light colored, placing mesh screens on doors and windows and covering containers that hold water. 

Symptoms, which include fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes, are more mild than other mosquito-related illnesses, and last about a week.

The higher the better

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Zika now touches 29 Caribbean island nations and territories, including Puerto Rico, as well as Mexico and Central America. In South American, only Chile and Uruguay are free of the virus.

In Mexico, tour operators in Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos claim they are Zika-free. The CDC also notes that regions above 6,500 feet elevation, including Mexico City and Puebla, are unlikely to be affected as mosquitoes cannot survive there.

In Costa Rica, also on the CDC list, Hans Pfister, of the Cayuga Collection resort, debunks one fallacy.

“One misconception is that the further away you are in the jungle, the more likely you are to get a tropical disease, and it’s not true,” Pfister said. “If you’re in a balanced ecosystem with natural predators for mosquitoes, you’re better off.”


With information from the Houston Chronicle

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