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Zika and Spring Break: How to Plan a Safer Vacation

Longer, brighter days mean you can finally see that much-needed respite from school and work on the horizon. But as spring break season approaches, the news is filled with reports of the Zika virus popping up all over the Caribbean and Central America, which could be leaving you wondering if you should punt your trip and just have a staycation at home. But canceling a long-awaited vacation would be a big disappointment for the kids (and you!), but safety is, of course, paramount. So before you adjust your plans, here's how the Zika virus could actually impact your spring break and how to protect your family:

What is it?

Zika is a primarily mosquito-borne illness that came to light almost a year ago in Brazil and has since hopscotched across the Americas and nearby islands, destinations that traditionally attract U.S. families in the spring. The virus is of greatest concern to pregnant women because it can have tragic consequences for their unborn babies (if you're expecting or trying to conceive and may be traveling to regions where Zika is present, you'll want to read this).

Not only can it spread from mother to child in utero, but Zika may also be transmitted sexually from a male partner to those he comes in contact with. "And while there aren't any confirmed cases yet, the virus may be passed via a blood transfusion," Jotir A. Ramnarine, a physician specializing in infectious disease and a Zika expert with AdvantageCare Physicians in New York, told Parenting.com.

Where is it?

"Cases of active Zika transmission have been confirmed in over 30 countries in the Americas alone, from Mexico and Brazil to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico," Ramnarine says.

While there are a few areas where the virus isn't yet present (Turks and Caicos, St. Lucia), the list of affected regions is fluid. "The Zika virus may spread wherever the Aedes mosquito goes," says Ramnarine.

If you're taking a vacation this year, it's a good idea to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) travel advisory website so you can stay up to date on the places where Zika is spreading. Since the CDC tracks the most current information, it's smart to check the site regularly.

Who's at risk?

Reports of Zika seem to lead every news cast, but for most people, it's not quite as big a threat as it may appear. It's true that any adult or child could contract the virus if they are bitten by an infected mosquito, says Ramnarine. But according to the CDC, only 20 percent of those infected with Zika will actually get sick.

Fortunately, the affect of Zika on kids and their parents is much less dire than for pregnant women. "So far, the available evidence for infants and children indicates that most would have no symptoms at all or they'd have the same mild version of the disease as adults," says Ramnarine.

What are the symptoms?

Most people infected with Zika won't even know they have it because they won't experience any noticeable symptoms. For the small percentage who do exhibit them, the most common are fever, rash, joint pain, headache and conjunctivitis (pink eye). The illness caused by Zika is generally mild and can last several days to a week. The CDC reports that people usually don't require hospitalization for Zika, and it's very rarely fatal.

How is it treated?

According to the CDC, there's no vaccine or specific medication to treat the Zika infection. Instead, the best course of treatment consists of supportive care, says Ramnarine. As with any infection, it's important to get plenty of rest and drink fluids to stave off dehydration. You can also check with your child's doctor about medication, such as acetaminophen, to ease fever and pain.

What about Guillian-Barre Syndrome?

GBS is a severe neurological disorder that may also be linked to the Zika virus. GBS is a rare autoimmune illness that affects the nervous system and may cause muscle weakness, nerve damage and even paralysis.

"This syndrome can weaken the muscles of the throat, which can lead to difficulty swallowing. In serious cases, the weakness can also affect chest muscles and a breathing tube may be required," explains Ramnarine.

The symptoms of GBS can last a few days to several months. Most people will make a full recovery, although a few will have permanent damage. While GBS is rather rare (about 1-2 cases for every 100,000 people develop it annually in the U.S.), it's still a concern if you're considering traveling to a Zika-affected country. "Anyone can develop GBS, but it's more common in adults over 50," he says.

According to the World Health Organization, of the 41 countries or territories that have reported transmission of Zika within their borders since last year, eight have reported an increase in Guillain-Barre cases.

What about myelitis?

Just yesterday, French researchers linked Zika to acute myelitis when a 15-year-old female patient was diagnosed with it on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and they later found high levels of Zika in her cerebrospinal fluid, blood and urine. The case report has been published in "The Lancet" medical journal.

"Until recently, Zika was thought to cause benign infections in humans," the report says. Instead, the "presence of Zika virus in the cerebrospinal fluid of our patient with acute myelitis suggests that this virus might be neurotropic," something that attacks the nervous system.

The team underlined this was a single case, and "future studies will be needed" to determine whether Zika does cause myelitis, which is an inflammation of the spinal cord.

How can you protect your family?

There are a few simple ways to fight the mosquitoes that can cause Zika. Keep the following in mind if you decide to travel to a country where the virus has spread:

Use bug spray

An effective insect repellent, especially one that contains the active ingredient DEET, is a safe way to deter mosquitoes. Per the CDC, bug sprays can be used on every member of the family, except for infants younger than 2 months old; these tots will have to wear clothing that covers the legs and arms. In addition to DEET, other safe ingredients include picaridin, and in some products, oil of lemon eucalyptus, but don't use this oil on kids younger than 3 years old.

Read labels carefully 

Always apply (and reapply) repellent as directed. If you're using sunscreen, put it on first and then use bug spray. "Insect repellent should be worn both outside and in—mosquitos can follow you inside and are happy to bite you wherever they can find you," says Ramnarine.

Wear long sleeves

Spring break is all about summer clothes, but this year it's wiser to cover up. Long pants and sleeves are the better bet; think linen and gauzy, lightweight fabrics.

Consider protective clothing

You can apply the synthetic insecticide permethrin to shirts and pants you already own, or you can buy pretreated items. Don't put permethrin directly on skin—it's only to be used on clothes.

Insist on screens and nets

Make sure the accommodations you've reserved have air conditioning and also include screens on all windows and doors. You might also ask about mosquito netting. "Many hotels offer netting that can be draped around beds at night, so it's a good idea to ask about it," says Ramnarine. Mosquito netting can also be used around a baby's carrier, stroller and crib.

Should you stay or should you go?

"Mosquito-borne illnesses present several challenges in terms of tracking and monitoring, so it's difficult to determine risk levels at any given time," says Ramnarine. As you consider the information and weigh the risks, keep in mind that unless you're pregnant (or trying to conceive), the CDC isn't recommending that travel to Zika-affected countries be postponed for U.S. families.

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