Why we’re changing our travel plans because of Zika

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A zika mosquito: Image by James Gathany via Flickr and Creative Commons

We’re supposed to be in San Pancho. We’ve been imagining the moment of our return for months – what it would feel like to drive down the main street and see our beloved town again ­– to recognise the similarities and spot the inevitable changes. We’ve been counting down with our friends, getting excited for a reunion after three years. It was supposed to happen today.

But instead, we’re here in Mexico City, confused amid a sea of conflicting information. There’s no apparent consensus, but in the face of terrifying consequences, we’re afraid to take the risk.

The issue is the Zika virus. You’ve most likely heard about it in the news. What was once considered a mild illness has now caused worldwide panic with the news from Brazil that it may be linked with microcephaly, a rare neurological birth defect. This has sparked governments around the world – including the UK and USA – to warn women who are pregnant, or who are trying to get pregnant, not to travel to any of the countries where the virus is currently present. Mexico is on that list.

Zika travel warnings for couples who want to get pregnant

People returning from Zika-infected areas are being recommended to wait for at least a month before trying to conceive – and the UK government has gone a step further, saying this should be extended to six months if you have shown any Zika-like symptoms. The problem with this advice is that 80 per cent of people with Zika don’t show symptoms. It’s hard to know if you had it, so, to be on the safe side, it would seem sensible to wait six months. It’s also thought that Zika can be transmitted sexually so this advice applies to men as well as women.

To make this even more complicated, it’s also very difficult to test for Zika. The blood test only works if a sample is taken during the first week of the infection, which would mean getting a test every week to be 100 per cent sure you didn’t have it. The test isn’t simple and isn’t readily available everywhere.

Zika in Mexico

Mexico has only had 18 confirmed cases so far and none of those are in the San Pancho area, but one was in Jalisco, the neighbouring state. The virus is spread via mosquitos of the Aedes genus, the same mosquito that carries dengue and chikungunya. These mosquitoes are found in all but the highest regions of Mexico so it’s expected the virus will spread. It’s also very hard to know if the current report of 18 cases is accurate because, before all the media attention, many people may have confused the symptoms with dengue. We aren’t medical or viral experts– all we know is that it seems impossible to know whether or not Zika will reach San Pancho in the next two months. Moreover, it would be highly possible we wouldn’t even know if we’d had it.

Steve and I don’t tend to be alarmist. We travel to places with dengue and other illnesses or risks, but with Zika the risk is different. We would like to have a child at some point in the future, and we don’t want to put that child in danger. The risk may be small, but the consequences are too big to dismiss.

So now we’re in a dilemma. We’ve spent the past few days agonising over the options and have finally decided, with tears, that we cannot take the risk. If we go to San Pancho, we’ll spend that time paranoid about mosquitoes – if defies the point of a trip that was meant to relax. We could just wait until six months after our trip to try to have a baby, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t want to wait that long.

Stuck in Mexico City

This means, that for now, we’re stuck in Mexico City. Luckily, we’re safe here as the city is at a high elevation and it’s wintertime, so the Zika-carrying mosquitoes aren’t around. But as much as we love this city, it’s not where we want to be: this was meant to be a retreat to nature not a stay in one of the world’s biggest cities. We paid for our flight and planned this trip with something very different in mind. It’s also a lot more expensive here than it would have been in San Pancho so a stay here is beyond our planned budget. The warnings were announced a few days after our arrival so we couldn’t cancel before we left the UK.

We don’t know what to do. Our flight back home is scheduled for April and the airline and travel agency are currently saying we’ll have to pay £800 to change it. Other airlines are offering changes free of charge for Zika-affected areas so we’re appealing that cost and hoping for good news soon. We have already wasted the initial cost of the flight and can’t afford to pay this extra charge.

The flight is the first obstacle. The next is deciding what to do instead. Our home in London is already rented out for the next two months so going home isn’t an option. We’re also due to be in England for the rest of the year and had our hearts set on this retreat. It’s already a major blow not to be able to go to San Pancho, so we’d really like to do something instead.

Where is safe from Zika?

If we are able to change our flight without charge, we’re considering going to South-East Asia, but this has raised yet more confusion. There are reports of Zika in countries like Thailand and Indonesia and many news stories say it will likely spread throughout that region, but no official warnings are currently in place. We’re confused about whether or not Zika is a problem there. If 18 cases in Mexico are enough to trigger a warning, then at what point will a warning be extended to South-East Asia? Is it imminent or is it safe, at least for now? There are a lot of unanswered questions.

I know that all of this is a small concern amid a crisis for countries affected by Zika. Steve and I are sad and disappointed that our plans for San Pancho have had to change. We’re frustrated and confused about all the conflicting information and the inability to know where is safe to travel. And we have wasted quite a lot of money. But all of that, of course, pales to nothing in comparison to the thousands of potential parents who are living in Zika-affected areas, unable to avoid the disease and protect their future children. My thoughts are with all of them, and I hope that the scientists of the world are able to move quickly to find answers to all the necessary questions about Zika and find a way to protect people from it. Without those answers, people who want to be parents around the world are left in a state of extreme precaution – from avoiding whole areas of the world to avoiding pregnancy altogether. It’s a devastating situation.

Have you been affected by Zika? Let us know your stories in the comments.

Image by James Gathany via Flickr, licensed by Creative Commons.

11 thoughts on “Why we’re changing our travel plans because of Zika”

  1. Come to Chile!! It’s still being declared Zika free and is unlikely to change (Atacama desert, Andes and climate protecting it). Of course, it’s not as cheap as SE Asia, but it would be rad to see you guys again, too!

  2. Sorry to hear about your decision. I was just in Brazil and read up a lot on Zika. You should look more into the SE Asia situation. As far as I understand, researchers theorize that microcephaly has never been an effect of Zika in other parts of the world because there may be a specific reason that women in Brazil had this effect, i.e. that it could have been a combination of previous Dengue infection and new Zika infection.

    • For us, the issue at the moment is that everything is speculation. Is very hard to read anything other than theories, and lots of those are conflicting. It’s very difficult to know what to do.

  3. Sorry to hear about your predicament my
    cousin! My girlfriend and I are set to head to Costa Rica for a week-long vacation on the 19th. It looks like Costa Rica just made the list yesterday, which isn’t the best news to hear. I’m still researching the snot out of Zika right now. We should be safe as long as we spray ourselves down with repellant and keep an eye out for those little biters, but it won’t be ideal… I’m sure you and Steve will figure it out – I love you both!

  4. South Africa might not be in the budget either…but we’ve been here almost two months (I’m pregnant) and SA is still safe…and unlikely to be a problem due to climate.

  5. We found out we were pregnant a month ago, right as all this was coming out, and living in Costa Rica. At the time, my husband was in interviews about a short term job in the states — before we even knew there was a possibility of being pregnant. He decided to take the job (the Zika virus wasn’t a factor at that point), and its definitely been perfect timing. The first case in Costa Rica was reported right after we got to the states. I’m not sure what we would have decided about it if it weren’t for the job. We lived on the Caribbean coast — beach and jungle, perfect playground for the mosquitoes.

    Like you said, the uncertainty is the worst part. The microceohaly could be completely unconnected to Zika. Or partially connected. Or not. Uncertainty is the worst.

  6. Oh no!!! What a huge shame. Have you thought about going back to India? It’s even cheaper than SE Asia and I’ve not heard anything about Zika cases being reported there…..Love to you and Steve! xxx

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