During a recent mission trip to the Dominican Republic, Brian Wallace had a daily ritual. First, he coated himself in sunscreen. Then, he covered himself in bug spray. Lots of bug spray.
“We had a couple of nurses traveling with us, vigorously telling us to do that,” said Wallace, creative arts director for the Diocese of Bridgeport.
That’s because the Dominican Republic is one of the many nations that’s been a hot spot for the mosquito-borne Zika virus—and it’s been particularly hot for Connecticut residents. As of Wednesday, 16 of the 27 Connecticut residents who tested positive for the illness caught it while traveling to the Dominican Republic.
That reflects what Bridgeport Hospital infectious disease chief Dr. Zane Saul has seen among the patients he’s had tested for the illness. “That’s definitely the number one spot,” Saul said. “It’s a bad mosquito season and a lot of people are getting bitten there. (Also) it’s a popular destination spot.”
So far, all of the Zika cases in Connecticut have been acquired through travel, and medical experts are strongly discouraging people from traveling to Zika-afflicted areas. The warning seems to have an effect for some, but for others, including Wallace, it will take much more than a Zika scare to make them change travel plans.
Concerns about travel
Nationwide, more than a thousand people have tested positive for the Zika virus—nearly all while traveling, though there have been some sexually transmitted cases. The illness is prevalent in a few dozen countries and territories, most of them in North and South America.
The Zika virus commonly causes fever, rash, conjunctivitis or other mild symptoms and, rarely, a paralyzing neurological illness called Guillain-Barre syndrome. It can also have serious consequences when a woman is infected during pregnancy, and has been linked to the birth defect microcephaly, in which the baby’s head is smaller than average. Three of the 27 people in Connecticut with Zika are pregnant women.
Saul said, fortunately, none of the people Bridgeport Hospital has tested to date have been positive for Zika. But he knows that stream of worried traveles coming in to be tested likely won’t stop any time soon. “We’re just going to kepe seeing this all summer,” he said.
Among Connecticut residents with Zika, the second most common site of infection was Puerto Rico, with four cases acquired there. Haiti and Colombia are other locales where more than one Connecticut resident acquired either Zika virus, or tested positive for Flavivirus—a virus that could signal the presence of ZIka or another related virus, such as Dengue fever.
Last week, the state Department of Public Health issued a release emphasizing the risks of traveling to Zika-affected countries.
“We continue to urge pregnant women, women who are trying to conceive and their male partners to avoid traveling to Zika-affected areas,” said state health commissioner Dr. Raul Pino in the release. “If travel is unavoidable, please follow all precautions to reduce the risk of infection, both during and after your trip.”
To go or not to go?
Nationwide, people do seem to be heeding the advisories and either postponing or rescheduling trips to Zika-affected spots. As early as February, when Zika-mania was just starting to take hold, the New Hampshire-based travel risk management program On Call International released a poll showing 64 percent of Americans said they would cancel travel plans amidst the Zika outbreak.
Many travel providers have planned for possible cancellations, including several airlines. American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines have all offered refunds and other adjustments for people who had been scheduled to fly to Zika-affected countries, but have changed their plans.
For Wallace, who lives in Wallingford, Zika was a huge concern when he and 145 other people from his church decided to make their trip to the Dominican Republic to build houses and a playground for poor families in the country. Wallace said he already had some experience with the perils of mosquito-borne illness. Two years ago, his son, Camden, went to the country and contracted Chikungunya, a disease spread by mosquitoes and accompanied by such symptoms as fever and joint pain.
“It was an awful two weeks,” Wallace said.
Before Wallace left for his trip in July, an expert came and spoke to the travelers about Zika and the precautions they needed to take to protect themselves. He said, of the whole group, only one member dropped out due to Zika concerns—a nurse who was pregnant. The group returned July 10 and, to his knowledge, no one was bitten and no one has developed Zika symptoms.
Though Wallace was concerned about the virus, he felt his mission to the Dominican Republic was important. Even Camden returned to the country where he acquired Chikungunya, looking to do some good. “The mission trip we went on was really close to his heart,” Wallace said.