I Got Zika While Traveling — Here’s What No One Told Me

See recent posts by Claire Shefchik

Photo courtesy of Flickr/NIH Image Gallery

Photo courtesy of Flickr/NIH Image Gallery

From the moment I decided to embark on a three-month journey around the Caribbean and Central America, I knew Zika was a possibility. It was impossible not to ignore the headlines. Caused by a bite from the Aedes mosquito, Zika is affecting dozens of countries and territories in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, including every single one I planned to visit. Over 400 cases have been diagnosed in the U.S. among travelers who had returned from the tropics. To top it off, there’s still no effective vaccine, so I couldn't protect myself that way.

“Hope you’re packing lots of DEET,” my friend told me in a grim farewell text.

My mother works for the State Health Department and told me repeatedly that there was no possible way I wouldn’t make it back Zika-free. “Just please don’t get pregnant,” she begged.

I understood her concern: Zika has been linked to microcephaly, a serious brain disorder in babies, with 5,000 suspected cases in Brazil alone. And as of May, cases among pregnant women returning to the continental U.S. have tripled.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Mike Mozart

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Mike Mozart

But frankly, none of it scared me much. Of course, I hate getting sick while traveling — who doesn’t? I wouldn’t be near my doctor, I’d be staying in strange lodgings with no one to care for me, and the local drugstores would only be selling unfamiliar medications in foreign languages. But I also knew that even if I did get it, chances were good I wouldn’t show symptoms — 80 percent of affected people don’t. Besides, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) isn’t recommending people cancel their trips — except for pregnant women. For this reason, many hotels, cruise lines, tour companies, and all three major U.S. airlines are allowing people to postpone or cancel their trips free of charge, and some travelers — particularly babymooners — have taken them up on the offer. One travel agent told “The New York Times” in January that he’d seen over 50 cancellations already.

Still, I brushed all of this off. I wasn’t pregnant and had no intention of becoming pregnant, so I figured I’d be just fine taking CDC-recommended precautions. I’d wear long sleeves and pants, avoid mosquito infested areas, spray bug dope everywhere, and stay inside at dawn and dusk — the time of day when mosquitoes like to party. But my first invitation to drink Panty Rippers in a tiki bar located smack in the middle of a mangrove swamp proved that this was easier said than done.

Tropical mosquitoes are smaller and stealthier than their North American counterparts — instead of buzzing and swarming around me, leaving me reaching for the Off!, they bit me on the sly, lulling me into security until I woke up the next morning with a ring of bites around my ankles. Okay, this was going to be harder than I thought.

All it takes is one bite from one infected mosquito to transmit the virus. I could tote gallons of DEET and still be unable to completely prevent that from happening — not on a three-month trip, at least. It wasn’t realistic, unless I wanted to spend the rest of my trip in a temperature-controlled hotel suite — and perhaps not even then.

If I get it, I get it, I decided.

I was in Rio Dulce, Guatemala when my legs gave out.

A hammock on a Belizean island looks relaxing, but not when you're covered in a Zika rash.

A hammock on a Belizean island looks relaxing, but not when you’re covered in a Zika rash.

When I’m traveling, it’s easy to dismiss symptoms I would be attuned to at home. It’s nothing, I thought. After all, I went on that three-hour walking tour of Livingston today. Or, I thought, it’s just heat exhaustion — I’ll drink some more water. But an hour later, I refused a second Gallo beer, cut my night short, and crawled into my hotel bedroom to take four Ibuprofens and pull a sheet up over my head. The mild ache had radiated from my legs up to my torso. My whole body felt as beat as if I had just climbed the Fuego volcano — and I hadn’t even been there yet.

It felt like the start of the flu, but I knew it wasn’t. 

Thankfully, the next morning, I felt 100 percent better, ready to go manatee-spotting on the Dulce River on my friend’s sailboat. But, by sunset, I was as run-down and listless as I had been the previous night. Doctors compare Zika to the flu, but this was unlike any flu I’d ever had. What’s worse is I had just agreed to sail the Belize reef for a week. So instead of romping in the surf on the first caye we arrived at, I spread a towel under a coconut tree and collapsed, remaining there until we were ready to zoom back on the dinghy — far from the paradise getaway I’d imagined.

When I got Zika, this itchy red rash covered every inch of my body.

When I got Zika, this itchy red rash covered every inch of my body.

And this was only the beginning. The next morning, I woke up in my sailboat cabin, quite literally not knowing where to scratch. I looked in the mirror to find that every single inch of my body was covered in small red blotches. I had not had this many dots on me since chickenpox at Disney World when I was six. (Yes, I have a storied history of getting sick on vacation). My friends on the boat offered me aloe, which didn’t work at all, and hydrocortisone, which worked for about 20 minutes.

“If it gets any worse, we’ll take you to land,” the captain reassured me.

“I’m sure it’ll go away on its own,” I reassured him. I wasn’t 100 percent sure of that. I crossed my fingers, popped Ibuprofen (again), curtailed my partying, and rode it out for the rest of the five to seven days it took for the rash to fade and joint pain to subside. I will admit that I kept expecting to fall on my face and have to be rushed to the ER (a tell-tale sign of Guillain-Barre, an autoimmune disorder that’s also linked to Zika, is marked by loss of balance).  

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Presidencia El Salvador

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Presidencia El Salvador

Some experts recommend being tested for Zika, even if you aren’t pregnant. In my case, I wanted to make sure I didn’t have some other bizarre jungle disease like chikungunya or dengue, the long-term effects of which can be debilitating. The truth is, after the virus has run its course, there’s not much point in a doctor visit. There are tests for Zika, but after symptoms stop, the virus is no longer detectable in the blood, and my doctor could only test for the antibodies, which can lead to false positives. But since there’s no treatment anyway, most people with Zika will never know they have it.

All in all, despite the week or so of discomfort I experienced — and I won’t sugarcoat how irritating that was — it never amounted to more than a low-grade flu. I wouldn’t have traded the chance to swim with rays on Grand Cayman or learn to scuba dive in Utila, Honduras. The incubation period is three to 12 days, so I could have gotten it in either of those countries, but I’ll never know for sure.

I know not everyone has the privilege to be this carefree, particularly women trying to get pregnant (and perhaps those looking to hook up with exotic foreigners while on vacation and don’t know the local word for “condom”). In fact, the CDC is warning pregnant women to consider postponing travel to Zika-affected areas indefinitely, which is rotten news for those Americans who have family near the equator or merely dream of kayaking through the mangrove forests of Belize.

I’m not advocating flippancy. There’s still a lot we don’t know about Zika and it may turn out to be more serious than I thought when I casually left for the Caribbean. Recent cases show that men — but not women — can transmit the virus to their partners via sex, possibly even if they don’t show symptoms. And those pesky Aedes mosquitoes? Turns out, they may be heading our way after all. The U.S. government is taking this seriously, redirecting its Ebola funding (remember that panic?) toward combating Zika instead. And as the 2016 Summer Olympics approach in Brazil, the epicenter of the epidemic, countries are taking extreme precautions. The South Koreans have even unveiled new Zika-proof uniforms for their Olympic athletes, complete with bug repellant. The World Health Organization is calling it a “major health crisis,” predicting at least three million cases worldwide, and it may be at least a year before an effective vaccine is developed.

But I won’t need it. For me, perhaps the one upside is that I now have immunity to Zika, maybe for life. I’m a traveler, after all — I suppose it’s time to book another ticket to the Caribbean.

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