Zika virus remains concern for travelers with pregnancy plans

While mainstream media coverage of the Zika virus has
largely faded into the background, agents say that clients who are most at risk
of negative side effects — women who are pregnant or planning to become
pregnant — are still avoiding travel to areas where the virus has been locally
transmitted.

In late 2015 and early 2016, Zika was confirmed in a number
of countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America. The virus started
to make headlines following a February 2016 declaration by the World Health
Organization that Zika was a public health emergency, with proven links to
serious birth defects. The virus eventually made its way as far north as Miami.

Zika is still present in dozens of those countries (see
chart).

“Travelers looking to get pregnant or who are pregnant
have to decide if they want to take that risk,” said Darcy Allen, owner of
Travel by Darcy in Epping, N.H. “I would say, largely, they are picking
alternative destinations or making sure they are tested when they get home
before trying to start a family.”

About the virus

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC), Zika is transmitted through mosquito bites or sex. It can also be passed
from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and it is thought to also be transmitted
through blood transfusions.

Most people infected with the virus will be asymptomatic or
have mild symptoms, including fever, rash, headache, joint pain, red eyes and
muscle pain among the most common. The CDC said symptoms last several days to a
week and very rarely cause death or hospitalization.

The virus is particularly problematic for pregnant women.
According to the CDC, infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly, a
birth defect in which a fetal brain malformation results in severe neurological
defects, including a smaller-than-average head. It has also been linked to
Guillain-Barre syndrome, a nervous system disorder in which a person’s immune
system damages nerve cells, which can sometimes result in paralysis.

There is no vaccine for Zika. According to the World Health
Organization, progress is being made toward developing vaccines and therapies,
but hurdles remain.

What agents are seeing

Margie Hand, an adviser with Andavo Travel in Birmingham,
Ala., said most clients are unconcerned about Zika.

“In general, I don’t think it’s really affected
bookings at all,” she said. “I definitely am booking a ton of
Caribbean. I think probably the biggest effect on Caribbean bookings has been
the hurricanes from last year and availability.”

While clients generally are not concerned with Zika, Hand
said, the exceptions are those who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
Within the past two or three weeks, she said, three clients in that at-risk
population specifically requested Zika-free destinations.

“For that market, for those who are expecting or trying
to get pregnant, that’s still something that they think about,” she said. “It’s
still something their doctors are discussing with them.”

Angela Pierson, co-owner of Wallace Pierson Travel on Amelia
Island, Fla., agreed that most general clients aren’t talking about the virus
anymore. “It seems like it’s just kind of fallen to the wayside
for a lot of people,” Pierson said.

She speculated that the falloff in media coverage is playing
a role in that, as is the resilience of well-traveled clients.

“I think a lot of them realize that our new normal is
just a constant state of chaos, whether it’s volcanoes going off or acts of
terrorism or Zika; there’s always something that seems to be happening,”
Pierson said. “I think people just got to the point where unless they
really feel uncomfortable about a destination, if it’s something that they
wanted to do, we’re just not seeing it change their mind.”

Gretchen Macknight of Perfect Honeymoons and Getaways
Perfected in San Diego, said Zika concerns are “still quite prevalent”
among her clients.

“Very possibly, we hear the phrase more than some
because a large part of our business is honeymooners and brand-new families,”
she said.

Agents are largely sending clients concerned about Zika to
Bermuda or Hawaii.

To discuss or not to discuss

Legally, agents are under no obligation to discuss Zika with
their clients, according to industry lawyer Mark Pestronk, Travel Weekly’s
Legal Briefs columnist.

“Agents should provide clients with, or have clients
agree to, a disclaimer that states that, for health matters at destinations, go
to the CDC website,” Pestronk wrote in an email. “That
discharges the agent’s duty, in my opinion.”

Some agents said they are still discussing the virus with
clients, though.

“I do think it is our responsibility to [bring it up],
gently and gingerly, with all respect,” Macknight said, adding that she
brings it up “carefully” with clients.

“It’s not something [like], ‘Oh, hey, are you pregnant?’
There has to be a bit of sensitivity there,” she said. For example, she
might ask, “Is Zika anything that you have been concerned about? Are you
guys planning on expanding your family anytime in the next couple of years?
That is a gentle enough but direct, to-the-point-enough question.”

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