In August 2019, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) announced that the World Health Organization (WHO) had removed the classification that categorized most of the countries in the Caribbean as having “active Zika virus transmission”.
This was based on the examination of data released by CARPHA, citing evidence that the Zika virus transmission in the Caribbean had been, “interrupted for over 12 months, or was at undetectable levels”. As such, the conclusion was that Zika now poses very little risk to residents and visitors to the region. This research was supported by data shared with CARPHA by Canada, the United Kingdom and the US which showed that no cases of Zika had been detected for over 12 months in travelers returning to those countries from the Caribbean.
This is positive news for travelers and to the Caribbean, which is the most tourism-dependent and one of the most popular honeymoon regions in the world. The Zika virus (ZIKV) was first detected in the area in late 2015. The number of cases increased in the first half of 2016 and reached its peak in August 2016, and then started to decline. Its presence is thought to be responsible for a significant number of cancellations and rethinks of visits to the islands over the past four years.
“Zika was a substantial epidemic in 2015 in the Caribbean and Latin America,” explains Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a Clinical Investigator and Staff Physician, Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases at University Health Network in Toronto. “It was quite a common infection, but we’ve seen a precipitous drop in cases since the beginning of 2016.”
“The thing to remember about Zika is that it is generally not a dangerous virus at all for most people. Eighty percent of those who contract it won’t develop any symptoms, and for the 20 percent who do, they’ll likely be mild, like headaches, a rash or conjunctivitis. The only real issue is its potential dangers in pregnancy, where it has been linked to a number of birth defects.”
As such, many health authorities around the world advised women who were pregnant or considering becoming pregnant to show particular caution in regards to Caribbean travel.
Does the new WHO declassification change things?
“What this does is confirm that the risk of picking up Zika in the Caribbean is now extraordinarily low,” notes Dr. Bogoch. “But it is not zero risk. The fact remains that the Caribbean and Latin American countries have the suitable environment – climate, humidity, landscape, elevation, etc. – for the breeding of the type of mosquitoes that can transmit Zika. So even if Zika only exists in very minimal amounts, the risk is still potentially there.”
“Generally, health authorities, including the Public Health Agency of Canada and the US Centers for Disease Control, continue to advise travelers to play it safe and take precautions – mainly through protecting themselves from mosquito bites,” he adds. “Yes, the risk is very much reduced, but nobody can say it is zero. Everyone has their own level of risk assessment and aversion and should act accordingly.”
There are numerous useful online sites on Zika prevention. The Centers for Disease Control offers some quick practical tips here.
Source: Caribbean Public Health Agency, University Health Network, Canadian Public Health Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization.