In the last few weeks word of a new, horrifying disease has spread rapidly, causing countless anxious travellers to question their holiday plans. We clarify the Zika virus in more detail and explain its impact on your next trip.
What exactly is the Zika virus?
On the 29th of January 2016 new warnings were released regarding the outbreak of the Zika Virus. The virus, transmitted through mosquito bites, raised particular concerns due to its links to birth defects in pregnant women. Reported in Tonga, the Dominican Republic and the US Virgin Islands, Zika is said to have spread to 24 nations and territories in the Americas.
Although the virus has been around since 1947, it was mainly confined to Africa and Asia. However, it has now spread to the Western hemisphere and affected more than a million people in Brazil. The World Health Organization has declared the current outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern." As of yet there is no vaccine against the Zika virus and no way of completely preventing mosquito bites.
What are the symptoms?
The Zika virus can cause mild symptoms in adults, with fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis being the most common signs of infection. The predominant cause of concern over Zika is its link to birth malformations and neurological syndromes.
What if I’m pregnant?
The question over whether the Zika virus directly causes birth defects is not definitive but there has been a substantial increase in Microcephaly (a condition where babies are born with unusually smaller heads) in Brazil where Zika has spread widely.
A Smarttraveller bulletin regarding the Zika Virus warns pregnant women to be “aware of the areas of ongoing transmission.” New Zealanders residing in or travelling to these regions are also advised to pay close attention to any relevant travel advisory and to stay informed.
Women who are pregnant (in any trimester) or those who are actively seeking to get pregnant are advised to consider postponing travel to any area with rampant Zika virus transmission.
If you do intend to travel to a Zika virus prone region and are pregnant or are intending to become pregnant, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor first and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during your trip.
Alternately, if you do want to cancel your trip because of Zika, your airline may be offering a refund or credit so be sure to research your options. At present, 11 airlines and three cruise ship companies have changed their refund or credit policies due to the virus. Whilst Qantas does not fly to any of the affected countries, its partner, American Airlines, is offering refunds to pregnant women.
Should I cancel my trip?
Although the panic over the Zika virus is understandable, it may not require you to put your holiday plans on hold just yet. Experts say that the vast majority who contract the virus will never know they had it. Even if they do show symptoms, these will usually last for a week and then disappear causing little to no harm.
Does travel insurance cover epidemics like the Zika virus?
Be warned that travel insurance will generally not cover epidemics, particularly after official travel warnings have been released. That means that any regions that are currently affected by the Zika virus (as listed on the Smart Traveller website) will not be covered under your policy. However, if you purchased travel insurance before the warnings were issued, you may be covered.
Some companies such as Columbus Direct and State will reimburse you should you need to cancel your trip due to government restrictions (after a pandemic). However, you would have had to purchase a policy before a warning was issued for your specific travel destination.
For example, if you are pregnant and booked a holiday to The Maldives prior to it being added to the list, you may have provision to claim under cancellation.
Other providers such as Allianz, Webjet and 1Cover list pandemics and epidemics as a general exclusion, so according to the black and white print, there is no cover, irrelevant of when you purchased your policy.
What if I go on my trip and contract the virus?
If you travel to an affected country and contract the Zika virus, in many instances your medical costs would be covered. Pregnant women and policies containing general exclusions relating to claims arising from pandemics and epidemics are the exception. Some insurers go further in the wording of their policies to exclude claims arising from "likely" epidemics or even the "threat" of an epidemic.
Up until now, insurers have held back on making public announcements in relation to their stance on the Zika virus and any crucial cut-off dates that may apply. With the situation still evolving and areas where transmission is considered ongoing difficult to determine, insurers have taken a ‘wait and see’ approach.
TID have said they will accept cancellation claims for pregnant customers who bought their policy before the WHO announcement on 25 January for the majority of destinations. Later cut-off dates apply to regions such as American Samoa, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Tonga (a full list of these regions can be found here). No cover is provided for cancellation/rearrangement costs if you are not pregnant at the time of travel to these countries.
NIB will also accept cancellation claims for pregnant customers who purchased insurance prior to 25 Jan (for the majority of destinations). Later cut-off dates apply to additional regions.
Tower will provide cancellation cover for pregnant women who purchased travel insurance before 1 Feb. All other claims for cancellation will generally not be covered and may be considered on a case by case basis. More information can be found here.
State has said that pregnant customers who purchased cover prior to 23 Jan would be eligible for cancellation benefits.
On 3 Feb, Southern Cross Travel Insurance announced that there is provision to claim for medical costs if you purchased your policy prior to 1 February. Whilst there is no cover for cancellation, if you do travel to a country affected by the Zika virus and contract the virus, there is cover for overseas medical and hospital expenses. Additional details can be found here.
1Cover is yet to make a formal announcement confirming whether or not they will provide cover.
Regardless of whether a Zika warning has been issued for your intended travel region, your policy would still uphold all the usual benefits of travel insurance such as lost luggage, theft of cash, personal liability and more. However any claims directly relating to the pandemic may be invalid.
Mosquito bite prevention
There is no cure or vaccine for the Zika virus. Kiwis who choose to travel to affected countries should take the following steps to prevent mosquito bites during their trip:
-Cover up: wear long-sleeved shirts and pants and tuck your pants into your socks. Always a good look!
-Stay indoors: stay in air-conditioned rooms with window and door screens to prevent mosquito entry.
-Sleep safe: sleep under mosquito nets if you are unable to prevent mosquito entry.
- Use repellent: use doctor recommended mosquito repellents; be sure to reapply as directed and apply over sunscreen. When pregnant consult with your doctor as to which repellents are safe.
- Remove sources of stagnant water: Sources of standing water can become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
A final word
Whilst fears regarding the Zika virus are not unfounded, the general population will most likely remain unaffected by the pandemic. Pregnant women and those trying to conceive should consider postponing travel to any of the 33 territories affected by the virus.