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First comes the news of a little known disease spreading in a country in Asia, Africa or South America. Reports follow of outbreaks in neighboring countries, with experts unsure of the scope or severity of the situation.
Then come the slew of concerned flyers, cancelled vacations, and calls to halt travel to affected countries.
This year, the Zika virus is making headlines around the world and causing travelers to reconsider their plans. But so far, the tangible effect on travel has been minimal and similar to recent global outbreaks of Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and South Asian Respiratory Syndrome.
A study of Travel Leaders Group agents, for instance, found that less than one in four agents has had a client cancel based on Zika concerns.
“The fear of Zika virus seems to be outweighing actual threat to the traveling public,” said Christopher Pardee, manager of health intelligence at iJET, a global risk management company. “It hasn’t truly decreased the volume of travel to the region yet. Many of our clients have not yet told their employees not to travel, most have focused on to education and prevention [instead].”
The Centers for Disease Control have issued several warnings for American travelers, particularly warning women to avoid regions that have been affected by the virus. According to the organization’s statistics, however, just 52 travel-associated cases have been reported so far.
Nine cases have been reported in U.S. territories, specifically Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
From an epidemiological standpoint, the virus is likely to be spread in the same regions that are already affected by severe mosquito-borne diseases. This is probably why the virus has not spread explosively in the Caribbean, except in the case of Martinique.
“The biggest indicator is how much any area has been affected by dengue fever or chikungunya, because Zika is spread by the exact same mosquito,” said Pardee. “As far as the timing about why it seems to have been highest [in Brazil] first, experts think the disease reached Brazil in 2014 during World Cup and spread quietly.”
In the case of Brazil and the upcoming summer Olympics, the biggest challenge will be ensuring major airlines don’t shut down service as a precaution. Delta Air Lines and United are each offering refunds to travelers who want to cancel flights to a Zika-affected destination.
“Brazil is already facing the perception backlash,” said Pardee. “If we can extrapolate from dengue fever rates, mosquito-borne diseases will likely be on the downslide by August.”