You’ve probably heard of the pernicious zika virus buzzing its way through warm and tropical regions all around the world, including Florida. Zika has garnered a lot of attention instigating protective measures to guard against infections.  Those protective measures can also shield travelers from vector borne diseases such as Lyme, West Nile, Chagas, Dengue, Yellow Fever, Malaria, West Nile are all insect borne illnesses.  World Health Organization (WHO) offers these key facts:

  • Vector-borne diseases account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases, causing more than 1 million deaths annually.
  • More than 2.5 billion people in over 100 countries are at risk of contracting dengue alone.
  • Malaria causes more than 400 000 deaths every year globally, most of them children under 5 years of age.
  • Other diseases such as Chagas disease, leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
  • Many of these diseases are preventable through informed protective measures.

Be aware of risks to your health from insect borne illnesses:

Chikungunya: A mosquito-borne viral infection causing severe fever and joint pain. Headache, nausea, fatigue and rash. Some of these symptoms can last a long time. chikungunya is often confused with dengue fever, another mosquito-borne illness.

  • Where: South America, Africa, Asia and the Indian subcontinent, it has been spreading in recent years.
  • Treatment: There’s no cure for chikungunya, treating symptoms offers relief.  Expect to be down for 10 days or more.  Symptoms may take more than 12 days to appear after being bitten by an infected mosquito.
  • Prevention: The mosquitoes are most prevalent in the early morning and late afternoon. Consider staying inside during peak mosquito hours. Stay away from open containers and water containers, wear protective clothing and use mosquito repellent containing DEET. Insecticide-treated clothing and mosquito nets are effective deterrents.  

Dengue: A mosquito-borne viral infection causing flu-like symptoms. In some cases, dengue can become severe and potentially lethal. Symptoms include high fever, pain behind the eyes, severe headache, rashes, joint pain, mild nose or gum bleeding or bruising, and low white cell count. In its severe stages, it can also cause vomiting, abdominal pain and difficulty breathing. Ironically, many people infected with dengue don’t show many symptoms.

  • Where: Tropical and subtropical locations worldwide. Infections have been on the rise in the past few years.
  • Treatment: There’s no cure for dengue or severe dengue, but catching it early and getting medical care reduces the fatality rate to less than 1 percent.
  • Vaccine: One strain has been approved for individuals 9-45 years old who live in endemic regions.
  • Prevention: Avoid standing water and containers where mosquitoes breed unless they’re treated with insecticides. Use window screens, long-sleeved clothes and mosquito control products to protect yourself.

Malaria: A mosquito-borne illness caused by a parasite. It can be difficult to detect, but if it isn’t treated quickly, it’s often lethal.

  • Symptoms: Fever, headache, chills, vomiting, and, if not treated quickly, sickness in various organs of the body.
  • Where: Nearly half the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s also found in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
  • Treatment: Malaria is very treatable and preventable, if caught quickly. Antimalarial drugs are available (visit a travel clinic before you travel).  Finish your preventive medications even after returning home.  Malaria can appear up to a month after returning home.
  • Prevention: Long-lasting insecticides and treated nets.

West Nile Virus/Yellow Fever/Japanese Encephalitis: A viral cousin of dengue found in various strains in various regions of the world. Most incidents are mild, but it can also cause severe clinical illness.

  • Symptoms: Headache and fever, and in severe cases, coma, seizures and spastic paralysis. (In the case of yellow fever, jaundice).
  • Where: Strains of these diseases are found in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America, West Africa, Central America and South America.
  • Treatment: There’s no specific treatment for any of these infections other than supportive care.
  • Vaccine: There are very effective yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis vaccines available, but none for West Nile virus.  
  • Prevention: Repellents, long-sleeved clothes, avoiding empty containers and open water, insecticide. In the case of West Nile virus, it also helps to avoid dead birds, which can also carry the infection.

Zika: A mosquito-borne virus that’s making headlines, mostly due to evidence connected to microcephaly in fetuses. The actual disease is seldom serious, but very hard to diagnose.

  • Symptoms: Fever, skin rash, muscle and joint pain, malaise and headache. The incubation period isn’t clear yet, but experts suggest it’s a few days.
  • Where: Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific region.
  • Treatment: Zika symptoms are mostly mild although some deaths have occurred. Many infected people don’t realize they have it. Treatments include rest, plenty of fluids and anti-inflammatory medication. If symptoms persist or worsen, visit a doctor.
  • Vaccine: There is currently no vaccine available for zika.  
  • Prevention: There’s evidence zika isn’t just mosquito-transmitted – it’s also sexually transmitted by an infected partner. If you or your partner suspect you might be sick, play it safe until you’re sure you’re healthy. Otherwise, use the other common methods of mosquito deterrence: nets, repellent, clothing and avoiding buggy areas.

Wherever you’re going, take precautions to avoid being bitten and seek medical attention if you suspect you are getting sick.  When traveling abroad, be sure you have travel insurance and medical travel insurance to get help and home.  Know the risks, research World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control.