Our Experience Against the Zika Virus in South America- How Tourists & Expats Can Protect Themselves from Epidemics, Pandemics & Outbreaks

As I write this, the Zika Virus is spreading across the Americas, particularly in Latin America where Fufu and I currently live. For the past few months, we’ve been living in Ecuador, a Spanish-speaking country in South America.

If you are currently a tourist, expat or you’re planning to travel abroad soon, be wary about the potential health risks in the countries you’ll be visiting. Your health is important! In particular, check whether or not the country is currently affected by epidemics, pandemics and outbreaks of infectious and communicable diseases and viruses.

Consider Health Risks & Any Epidemics, Pandemics & Outbreaks For Your Travels

As much as I love to travel, especially to exotic, far-flung places in the world, I put my health and safety, and the health and safety of my family as a very high priority. I’ve come to appreciate this over the years. So, if ever I travel to a country, I always want to make sure that I’m protected from potential health risks. Throughout our years travelling the world, I have noticed how epidemics, pandemics and outbreaks can affect your travels.

• A disease outbreak happens when a disease occurs in greater numbers than expected in a community or region or during a season. An outbreak may occur in one community or even extend to several countries. It can last from days to years.

• An epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people. For example, in 2003, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic took the lives of nearly 800 people worldwide.

• A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. HIV/AIDS is an example of one of the most destructive global pandemics in history.

Resource: WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/what-are-epidemics-pandemics-outbreaks

For instance, before I moved and worked in Bangladesh, I saw a specialist travel doctor who gave me several boxes of malaria tablets, just in case. During the H1N1 swine flu worldwide pandemic, I remember having to pass infrared, body temperature checks at the airports of Malaysia and Hong Kong. Besides that, prior to Fufu and I visiting Bolivia and Peru, we had to go to the doctors and get Yellow Fever vaccinations.

Our reactions to the Zika Virus spreading in the Americas

Now, with the Zika Virus on the loose here in the Americas, Fufu and I have the take extra precautions to ensure we are safe from it. Initially, when the Zika Virus came about, we thought it was only in Brazil and so we were just concerned. However, once Ecuador (where we currently live) was added to the list of affected countries, we initially began to freak out.

The reason for this alarm was because, at the time of this writing, we are actually trying to have a baby, our first child. Yet, there have been reports in Brazil of microcephaly and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant. Microcephaly is a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age. The Zika Virus is mainly transmitted through mosquitoes.

Actually, in the past few days and weeks, several friends and family have warned us about the Zika Virus. They are particularly worried about protecting Fufu and our future baby.

4 Preventative Measures We’re Taking to Protect Ourselves from the Pandemic

Given that we currently live in an affected country, and yet the Zika Virus is spreading and very risky to our family, how are we responding to it? What can we do to shield ourselves from the Zika Virus?

The following list will explain what we’re doing, but it will also be helpful for you if you are considering to visit or you already live in a country affected with the Zika Virus. On a more general sense, these tips are also useful for you if you are travelling anywhere else that may be prone or affected by infectious and communicable diseases and viruses.

1. Be informed and educated about the risks

First, regularly read up about the health risks of the country you will be visiting or live. You can read up the latest health news about that country. Check any information about any pandemics, epidemics or outbreaks in the country, and specifically in the areas that you will be going.

In addition, you can learn more about potential health risks in an area or country by checking out the World Health Organization (WHO) website, and you can learn more about certain diseases on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

Regarding the Zika Virus specifically, you can learn more about it here:

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/zika/en/ and http://www.cdc.gov/zika/index.html

If you are still worried about the risks, or if you want to get vaccinations or medicines if they are available, then I recommend you consult your doctor, who can give you more specific advice for your particular case.

2. Learn more about your travel destinations & change your travel plans if necessary

While news reports and WHO and CDC reports may give blanket warnings about affected countries, you should do even more research about the specific locations that you will travel to or live in. The reason is because there are times when a certain disease actually is not present in a certain area of a country, and at times, those areas may not be able to spread the disease given its location.

This was the case for us, living here in Cuenca, Ecuador. Many parents and friends had been warning us about the Zika Virus, and we read countless news reports about how Ecuador was a Zika-infected country. Nevertheless, when we dug deeper, we discovered that it was actually very difficult or even near impossible for it to spread in Cuenca. The reason is because the Zika Virus is commonly spread by mosquitoes.

Yet, here in Cuenca, there are hardly any mosquitoes due to the high altitude. We live up in the mountains, and the mosquitoes that spread the Zika Virus do not live in these altitudes.
So again and again, we’ve been reassuring friends and family that we are generally safe from the Zika Virus.

Nevertheless, that does not mean we are totally unaffected. We have had to rethink some of our travel plans. We are proactively avoiding all lower lying areas of Ecuador and Latin America. We will no longer travel around Ecuador during our stay here, and we’ll stay put in Cuenca for now, just to be safe for us and our baby.

In regards to changing your travel plans, you should be aware that if you have pre-bought any flight tickets to countries affected by pandemics, epidemics and outbreaks, then you may be able to cancel your flights and get a refund. I found out about this recently when Fufu and I were organizing some flights with American Airlines, and I found out that passengers may be able to get refunds if they want to avoid going to Zika-affected areas.

3. If you go to or live in an affected area, use protective health measures

If you are set on travelling to an affected area or if you happen to live in a place that becomes affected, then be sure to follow any protective health measures that are relevant to the disease. For instance, with the Zika Virus, since it is spread via mosquitoes then we can use insect repellant or wear long sleeve tops and long pants to prevent getting bitten. Even though we live in Cuenca and Zika is not prevalent here, I have suggested to Fufu to nevertheless consider putting on insect repellant or wear a jacket and pants if we g out into the town or at the upcoming Carnaval.

We could also use mosquito nets to protect us while we sleep, but since we live in a high-altitude area of Ecuador, we don’t need to go that far. These same mosquito prevent strategies would also come in handy for areas affected by malaria as malaria is spread by mosquitoes.

4. Protect Yourself from the Risks of Epidemics, Pandemics and Outbreaks When Overseas

I love to travel. You probably love to travel, too. However, your health is important and I care about your health and safety. Please be sure to follow the tips I outlined above, especially if you are travelling to or live in a country affected by a pandemic, epidemic or outbreak, such as the Zika Virus.

If even after reading this post, you are still worried, then do check out the resources that I provided above like the WHO and CDC. If you want even more specific information for you circumstances, or if you find that you have symptoms of a certain epidemic or pandemic disease, then please see your doctor.

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