Travel warning issued amid Zika virus concerns

The Public Health Department is advising all residents of the Cayman Islands to avoid nonessential travel to countries affected by the regional outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

“Simply put, if someone is bitten by an infected mosquito in countries where Zika exists, the infection can be acquired and brought back to Cayman,” Dr. Samuel Williams, acting medical officer of health, said in a press release Wednesday. “It is therefore paramount the public protect themselves from mosquito bites by using mosquito repellents, wearing long-sleeved clothing and pants tucked into socks during travels.”

Zika has been documented in Brazil, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Martinique, Paraguay, El Salvador, Mexico, Suriname, French Guiana, Guatemala, Panama, Venezuela, Guyana, Haiti, Barbados, Ecuador and St. Martin.

One in five people infected with the Zika virus will exhibit symptoms, which include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis. The illness is usually mild, however, Zika has been linked to an increase in cases of infant microcephaly, a neurological disorder that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, resulting in severe developmental issues and sometimes death.

More than 2,400 suspected cases of microcephaly were reported in Brazil in 2015, compared to 147 cases in 2014. The outbreak prompted health officials in Brazil to warn women to avoid becoming pregnant.

Concerns about the effects of the virus on fetuses prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to issue a statement last week recommending that all pregnant women avoid traveling to areas affected by the virus.

“Because there is neither a vaccine nor prophylactic medications available to prevent Zika virus infection, CDC recommends that all pregnant women consider postponing travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing,” the CDC advised. “If a pregnant woman travels to an area with Zika virus transmission, she should be advised to strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites.”

According to Dr. Williams, there were no suspected cases in the Cayman Islands as of Tuesday. Medical service providers have been advised to be on the lookout for any local cases.

Given that there is no vaccine or medicine to treat Zika, containment of an outbreak is a “top priority for Public Health,” according to the department’s press release.

Measures for controlling the spread of Zika are similar to those used to control dengue and chikungunya, according to Mosquito Research and Control Unit Director Dr. Bill Petrie. All three diseases are transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

“Until a vaccine is developed, the MRCU remains steadfast in its efforts to ensure the Aedes aegypti population is suppressed through effective vector control strategies,” Dr. Petrie said.

A travel health clinic is held on Thursdays in the Public Health Department at the Cayman Islands Hospital. Residents with travel plans can get advice on what diseases are present in their country of destination and what vaccines or precautions are needed.