Mission Trips and the Zika Virus

Do you have plans to go on a mission trip to Central or South America this year?

Me too.

In just a couple of weeks, I will be leading a medical missions team into the heart of Zika infested Central America.

For almost 20 years, I have been working with national partners in several countries, preparing the way for teams to serve and minister to the needs of the poorest of the poor.

But this year, something is different.  A new concern has arisen, and mosquito-borne anxiety is sweeping the world. 

By some estimates, nearly 2 million Americans are planning to serve on a missions trip of some form this year.  If you are one of them, and plan to head to Zika-land this year, you would be wise to stay well informed.

What’s the Big Deal?

Until 2015, the Zika virus was barely a blip on the infectious diseases radar.  That is, until a chillingly dramatic increase in babies born with microcephaly coinciding with increasing Zika virus infections was identified in Brazil.

The diligent Brazilian doctors soon discovered that pregnant mothers, whose developing baby showed signs of abnormal brain development, contained the Zika virus not only in their blood…but in their amniotic fluid as well.

This discovery, juxtaposed with the increasing spread of Zika virus infections in the Americas has prompted the well warranted concerns about potential infection of mothers-to-be.

The Two Critical Features

While viral infections transmitted by mosquito bites are nothing new, the Zika virus has two features that together are especially problematic.

First, the Zika virus readily passes through the placenta of an infected mother, infecting the developing baby directly.

This “vertical transmission” from mother to baby is neither surprising nor very unique.  A number of other viral infections during pregnancy can also cause big problems for baby.

But combine vertical transmission with the the second differentiating feature, and we have a real problem:  The Zika virus appears to have an affinity for neural tissue.

As the Zika virus focuses its destructive activity on the developing nerve tissue of the baby, bad things happen, and the brain does not develop like it should.

This may also be what is behind a potential association between Zika virus infection and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition which causes paralysis by damaging the nerves that signal skeletal muscles.

What happens if you get infected?

For 80% of us, nothing.

4 out of 5 people who are infected by a Zika-virus-carrying mosquito actually fight off the virus without becoming ill.

For the rest of us, Zika virus infection induces a fairly self-limited, flu-like illness.  The symptoms of fever, headache, conjunctivitis (pink eye), muscle and joint aches, and rash typically pass in a few days to a week, and then we are on to full recovery.

The overriding concern is the connection to a baby’s brain development when a pregnant woman gets infected.

I’m pregnant (or may soon be).  Should I cancel my trip?

With the knowledge and information available to us now, I believe the prudent answer here is yes.

There is more we don’t know than we do know about the real risk to your baby if you should become infected with Zika virus.  There will be plenty of opportunities to serve in plenty of mission trips in the future.

The risk you bear here is not just your own, but that of your developing child.  Talk and pray it through.  Pursue wisdom.  And for now, stay home.

Top 5 Ways to Prevent Zika Virus Infection

For we non-pregnant travelers to Mexico and Central and South America, the key to preventing Zika virus infection is to prevent being bitten from the mosquitoes that carry it.

Keep in mind this in mind as you prepare for your trip—the mosquito that carries Zika, doesn’t just bite during the evening hours…it bites all day long.

To reduce your risk of being bitten (and infected), follow these five key steps:

1. Cover Your Skin.

Consider every part of your skin through out the day a potential mosquito (and Zika virus) target, and keep it covered with clothing or repellent, or better yet…both.  Dress with light, long sleeved shirts/pants, and then apply the repellent over your clothing and on exposed skin.  And re-apply every few hours.

2. Treat Your Clothing.

Before leaving, lay out all of your clothing and spray each item with permethrin spray.  The permethrin lasts on your clothes even through several washings, and adds an additional layer of protection.  Just remember…the permethrin is for your clothing only, not your skin.

3. Screens and Netting.

Make sure open windows are screened for both day and night protection.  If you are unsure, mosquito netting can provide an additional layer of night time protection.

4. Sunscreen first, then repellent. 

It’s tropical.  It’s hot.  In your diligence to prevent mosquito bites, don’t forget about the burning power of the sun.  Apply your sunscreen first, allow it to absorb and dry for a few minutes, then apply the repellent on top.  Same goes for re-applications throughout the day.

5. Common Scents.

Leave them behind.  Your perfume, cologne, scented creams and hairspray…leave them at home!   It’s a mission trip, not a pageant, right?  I would even suggest bringing unscented deodorant and soap to help reduce the risk of attracting mosquitoes.

Is there a Test for Zika Virus?

Yes, but it takes a bit of effort to obtain it.  If you think you have been or may be infected with the Zika virus, see your doctor as soon as you return home.  Your blood can be drawn and sent to the CDC for evaluation, but it may take up to 2 weeks to get a result.

Men, if your wife is pregnant and you think you may be or have been infected, keep in mind that it appears that transmission through body fluids such as semen can occur, and can remain present there longer than than in the blood.

To be safe, either abstain from intimate activity, or use condoms until advised by your doctor otherwise.  The goal, again, is to do everything possible to reduce risk of transmitting the infection to a pregnant woman and ultimately to her baby.

The Zika virus threat isn’t going away any time soon.

But with careful precautions, the risk can be managed.

So with those protections in place—go, serve.  And walk forward in faith, not fear.

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