Updated Mexico Zika map

The Mexico Tourism Board in mid-April updated its map indicating where Zika has been reported in the country. Read More

Widespread travel-related concerns about Zika appear to have died down somewhat since news of the mosquito-borne virus broke in January, but destinations where there is more vigilant and accurate reporting of Zika cases are still feeling some impact.

“I think unfortunately for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, they’re getting an unfair amount of attention on them in the U.S. media,” said CheapCaribbean.com’s Caribbean product manager, Dan Marmontello. “I think that has to do with not the virus itself but how they’re reporting the virus.”

Marmontello said that while much of his company’s Mexico, Central America and Caribbean business has seen growth in 2016, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have experienced setbacks, and he believes that part of that is because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) oversee the reporting of Zika in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, while other destinations are left to self-report their Zika cases.

Click for a larger version of this map.

To date, Zika virus transmission has been reported in 43 countries and territories in the Caribbean, Central and South America, in the Pacific Islands, Cape Verde and Mexico. But travelers trying to gauge their risk of contracting Zika in any of these destinations based on the number of cases in each country or territory will find that the information available is in most circumstances not complete nor very reliable.  

The World Health Organization and its health agency for the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), keep track of suspected and confirmed Zika cases throughout the Americas.

However, each country self-reports its own data, resulting in wildly disparate numbers that are basically not comparable. For example, as of April 21, Honduras reported that it had more than 18,000 suspected cases of Zika, with only two confirmed cases, while in nearby Mexico, there are no suspected cases and 239 confirmed ones. 

In the Caribbean, Martinique said it has almost 18,000 suspected cases and only 12 confirmed ones, while Puerto Rico, where the numbers are counted by the CDC, reports it has no suspected cases and 550 confirmed ones.

Even Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika outbreak in the Americas, reports just over 1,000 confirmed cases of Zika, and more than 70,000 suspected cases. 

The lack of a standard system in reporting infectious diseases is a common issue, according to Emily Toth Martin, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. It is even more difficult with Zika, which is different than many viruses in that, with the exception of the severe risk it poses to pregnant women, there is little risk to patients, and in many cases it is either no worse than a flu or has no symptoms at all.

“Because there are so many asymptomatic infections and because the infection can be so mild, it’s really hard to track,” Martin said.

In addition, Martin said improved ways to test for Zika are still under development. Currently, the tests are more complicated than something like a “run-of-the-mill flu test,” and some tests pick up other diseases such as dengue and chikungunya.

“We are still learning how to best interpret the results of the tests with all these other factors,” she said. “The asymptomatic infections make it complicated, and then these other very similar viruses circulating at the same time make it a really tricky surveillance situation.”

A quieting of the Zika effect

Zika continues to be in the news, and the CDC and health officials continue to discover more about the virus. For instance, the CDC recently concluded that the virus can be sexually transmitted and that it is a definitive cause of microcephaly (having an abnormally small head) and other severe brain defects in infants born to infected mothers. Yet travel sellers report that overall their bookings are being far less impacted by Zika now than they were at the start of the year.

“I have seen my Mexico and Caribbean reservations remain steady in comparison with previous years,” said Brian Sanchez of Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based Travel Leaders. “I did have some questions from booked clients and potential customers when the news initially broke on Zika, but no mention in the last few weeks, and no cancellations from my clients.”

Nevertheless, he said, “One of my colleagues did have to cancel one booking, due to the client being pregnant, but other than that, I don’t feel it’s really affected our Mexico or Caribbean clientele.”

Across the board, travel agents reported similar stories of a Zika-related cancellation or rebooking here or there, involving clients who are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant, since the impact of Zika is most severe for that segment of the population.

In Brazil, too, where the total number of microcephaly cases rose to around 5,000 this month, according to the country’s health ministry, it appears that at least when it comes to sports fans the effect of the initial news about the Zika outbreak has been dying down somewhat as the country prepares to host the 2016 Summer Olympics Aug. 5 to 21.

A study commissioned by the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau showed that bookings to Rio for the period of the Olympic games are up 322% compared with the same time last year, with the largest number of sports fans coming from the U.S. and Argentina. The same study showed that overnight hotel stays for the period of the Olympic and Paralympic Games are up by 208%.

As for leisure travel, operators reported that it is hard to tell how much Brazil bookings are actually being impacted by Zika or by other factors. Olympics years are typically off years for leisure travel in host destinations anyway, as tourists tend to avoid due to all the hubbub and surge pricing surrounding the Games, and Brazil is no exception.

In addition, a drop in interest in travel to Brazil could be a result of the protracted political unrest that culminated this month in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.

In Puerto Rico, the main impact of the Zika virus is being felt in the meetings and conventions space, according to Ingrid Rivera Rocafort, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.

Rocafort said that Puerto Rico has lost between six and eight future events that had been planned over the next few years, adding up to some 23,000 lost room nights and approximately $15 million in lost revenue.

In an effort to calm concerns travelers might have about Zika in Puerto Rico, the tourism agency last week issued a statement letting travelers know that fewer than one half of 1% of the island’s population has been affected by the Zika virus and that visitors to the island should feel confident that local authorities are working to ensure their safety and welfare.

But Zika is not just a problem off the shores of the U.S. mainland. Florida officials, too, have been keeping a close watch on the outbreak. Thus far, there have been 91 confirmed Zika cases in Florida, though all were brought into the state by travelers arriving from Zika-affected parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.

While Florida officials are concerned about a possible Zika outbreak in the coming months, Martin said it is very possible that won’t happen. She pointed to other mosquito-borne diseases that have been problematic in Latin America and the Caribbean but that have not resulted in major outbreaks in the U.S.

“We’re not sure what’s going to happen,” Martin said, “but my suspicion is that an outbreak [in Florida] is unlikely.”
___

Johanna Jainchill and Gay Nagle Myers contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this report misspelled Dan Marmontello's last name.

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