Zika virus impacts travel as cases increase

The mosquito-borne Zika  virus has some travellers reconsidering their decision to visit potentially virus-laden areas across the Americas.

Zika has been rapidly spreading, and is particularly volatile in South and Central America. Brazil is believed to be ground-zero for the recent outbreak as the number of areas continues to spread, heightening concerns of an outbreak.

Health officials are cautioning potential travelers from visiting these areas. Pregnant women are particularly affected as  the virus may be linked to birth defects.

Travel industry takes notice

The travel industry is on full alert. Air Canada has joined the growing list of airlines offering refunds for tickets flying to Zika affected regions.

An Air Canada medical desk spokesperson stated that the airline is giving full refunds to pregnant flyers, but a doctor’s note must be faxed or emailed to the airline, as per their refund policy. Patrons travelling with pregnant women may also receive full refunds so long as they are on the same booking.

Non-pregnant travellers are not eligible for refunds. Though they may contract the virus, Air Canada doesn’t consider them at-risk enough to warrant a refund.

Air Canada has offered to waive a ticket change fee for travellers who wish toe exchange tickets,  but they must also pay for any difference in fare or taxes associated with ticket changes should they wish to fly to non-affected areas instead.

Tickets eligible for refunds must have been purchased no later than Jan. 26 for flight departure dates no later than June 30, 2016, stated an Air Canada official.

WestJet is not yet offering refunds to people travelling to areas affected by the virus.

The virus was originally discovered in Uganda in the 1940s, and had also spread to parts of Asia by the 1950s. However, the virus has recently “spread explosively” in South and Central America, currently affecting 24 countries and regions according the the World Health Organization.

Few cases had been reported before 2013, but its current incarnation is feared to become a full-blown pandemic.

The virus is closely related to dengue fever and West Nile, and is especially dangerous for pregnant women according to the W.H.O. It is believed to be linked to a birth defect called microcephaly. The abnormality causes unusually small heads and incomplete brain development in newborns.

The link to birth malformations  has not been conclusively established but is strongly suspected, according to WHO’s Director General Margaret Chan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that while it’s possible for the virus to spread through blood transfusion or sexual contact, it is not likely.

The CDC list of  affected areas include: Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Samoa, Suriname, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Venezuela.

Should Canadians worry?

Canadian officials are not overly concerned about a potential outbreak on home soil as the mosquitoes that carry the virus are better suited for warmer areas. Canada’s climate is not hospitable to Zika carriers, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

A warning has been issued to travelers visiting areas affected by the outbreak. PHAC has not suggested any travel restrictions be implemented to the aforementioned areas. They are, however, advising Canadians take serious precautions if they decide to travel to countries affected by the virus.

Pregnant women and women considering becoming pregnant are advised to postpone travel if possible. If they must travel to these regions, they are being cautioned to take strict precautions and consult with their physicians before they depart.

Canadian Blood Services will be refusing blood donations from those travelling to Zika-affected areas. The risk of contracting the virus through blood transfusion is low.

Officials do not want to risk infecting Canadians, how ever minimal the odds may be. The deferral period of donations from Canadian’s who travelled to areas affected by malaria is 12 months. It is uncertain how long the deferral period will be, but it is expected to be shorter than the malaria wait period.

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