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Zika in Latin America


Note from FSD about Zika Virus Disease

You cannot read news headlines about Latin America without seeing updates about the mosquito-borne Zika virus. The virus has been drawing media attention due to its rapid spread and the ambiguity surrounding transmission and potential side effects. At FSD we are committed to the health and safety of all our program participants. We have been taking precautions in-country and have spent time researching the virus in an attempt to stay informed of the situation.

When sending individuals and groups abroad, we want to make sure there is clarity regarding the extent of the severity of Zika, where Zika is more of a concern, and where it is not. Especially with conflicting sources and alarming media coverage we want to be as transparent as possible so that you and your university can make informed decisions and prepare adequately. We hope that the following information is useful in your considerations.

What is Zika?

According to the CDC, “Zika Virus Disease (Zika) is a disease caused by the Zika virus, which is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito.”

As a mosquito-borne illness, Zika outbreaks tend to occur in places where mosquitoes thrive, which is at 6,500 feet or lower and in humid tropical places where there are more chances of there being standing bodies of water where mosquitoes can lay eggs. Zika, however, is not only transmitted through mosquitoes, it can be sexually transmitted, from mother to child, and possibly through blood transfusions. The CDC has recommended wearing condoms or other kinds of protection during any kind of sexual activity. Zika can be transmitted by either a male or a female and, as it is difficult to recognize that one has Zika, it is better to take precautions in case you or your partner(s) have the virus. New information finds that the incubation period for Zika is about 10 days. If after that time period no symptoms are present, travelers should still take precautions especially regarding sexual activity as Zika virus can remain in a man’s semen for about 24 days after infection, and Zika particles can remain in a man’s semen for up to 62 days.

The CDC and other global health sources have started to research the possibility of Zika in pregnant women causing birth defects like microcephaly in the child. There have been few cases of the sort and research is still underway. Pregnant women should take precautions accordingly, as should couples who are trying to become pregnant. The CDC suggests that women even thinking about pregnancy should take precautions and consult with their physicians before traveling to an affected country. Men as well are suggested to not engage in unprotected sex for about 8 weeks after returning from an affected country if they have not displayed any symptoms and 6 months if they have. Finally, it is suggested that the sick and elderly, and newborns or young children should be protected as they may have weakened or not yet developed immune systems that expose them to flu-like symptoms which can be lethal.

Facts from the CDC:

  • Most people who have Zika are asymptomatic and persons presenting symptoms are  hardly ever transported to the hospital and very rarely have people ever died from Zika
  • People usually become immune to the virus after infection
  • Symptoms are often mild
  • The virus usually lasts from several days to up to a week after infection
  • A woman who had been infected with Zika will not put future pregnancies at risk, although the time period for the virus leaving the blood stream is still unknown

Preventing Zika:

Our site teams provide interns information on prevention of mosquito born illnesses at orientation and in pre-departure materials. Here are a few simple ways to prevent Zika and protect your health:

  • Cover exposed skin to prevent mosquito bites
  • Use insect repellent
  • Wear pretreated clothing
  • Sleep under a mosquito bed net
  • Have direct and transparent conversations with your partner(s) about sex and their sexual history
  • Use condoms and/or other physical contraceptives during any kind of sexual activity with any partner

Further readings on prevention:

What Does Zika Mean to Our Sites in Latin America?

Cochabamba, Bolivia: According to the CDC, Aedes mosquitoes do not live above 6,500 feet (≈ 1,981 meters), therefore our site in Cochabamba is not at risk for that form of infection as it lies at around 8,300 feet (≈ 2,530 meters). However, travelers to this area should exercise caution with any sexual activity and use condoms as preventative measures against being infected through sexual transmission.

Salta, Argentina: Salta has a low risk for Zika transmission through mosquitoes. Additionally, there have been no outbreaks of Zika in Salta at this time. Nonetheless, travelers should be cautious of leaving open water out and much like in Cochabamba, it is important to take preventative measures when engaging in sexual activity of any kind by using condoms or other physical contraceptives.

Ciudad Sandino/Tola, Nicaragua: Of our three sites in Latin America, Nicaragua is more at risk than the others for Zika transmission through mosquitoes as it is a tropical, humid region. Thus far, there have been few cases reported of Zika and none have been reported from FSD participants. Travelers should always exercise caution with the preventative tips presented above as well as be conscious of the risk of infection through sexual transmission. Below is some information of what measures our site staff is taking.

  • The FSD Site Teams conduct workshops with FSD Host Families before the arrival of FSD participants about the importance of preventing infection of illnesses transmitted through mosquitoes. All participants are taught how to use a mosquito net they can sleep under during their stay with their Host Family. Participants are urged to use the mosquito net, a fan, and insect repellent as a means to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses.
  • Interns are encouraged to wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and closed-toed shoes to work. At orientation, the FSD Site Teams review the information regarding Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya, and suggestion from the CDC on how to prevent mosquito bites and how participants can recognize Zika symptoms. The Site Team also provides information regarding how you can minimize the number of mosquitoes in the household.
  • Nicaragua has a constant alert system in which the general public is trained and there are widely available medical resources for prevention, The FSD Site Teams make use of the public health system and has private clinics where they take participants when they are ill in order to test for infection. If potential symptoms are detected, hospitals will recommend a 72-hour watch.
  • The health system in Nicaragua is working tirelessly to help stop new transmissions of Zika and offer free mosquito fumigation in households, community clean ups in neighborhoods, and community workshops in cleanliness in the home. Nicaragua also carries out educative workshops in public schools.

Our Recommendations:

  • Follow prevention tips, do what’s best for you and your situation while enjoying your time in Latin America
  • If you become infected make sure to take care of yourself and be mindful of not infecting those around you with the tips provided
  • Communicate clearly with your peers and your superiors if you become infected or suspect you are infected
  • Educate yourself as much as you can on the subject, but not just on Zika - Dengue, Chikungunya, and Malaria are also mosquito-borne illnesses
  • Don’t be alarmed by the media, inform yourself and be aware of what is pertinent to you and your situation

Additional Resources:

Interactive Map:

This article was written with contributions from Andrea Vidal