The risks from the mosquito-borne Zika virus are beginning to become clear, and the effects on airline demand are starting to be felt as many passengers change destinations out of either specific concerns or an abundance of caution.
While the immediate effects of the disease are often likened to a mild version of dengue fever, the greatest current area of concern is for mother-to-fetus transmission of the disease, given evidence that the virus can cause abnormal brain development, microencephaly, or miscarriage. There is also recent evidence to suggest sexual transmission of the disease.
“The symptoms of Zika are similar to those of dengue and chikungunya, diseases spread through the same mosquitoes that transmit Zika,” notes the Atlanta-based CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). “The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache. The incubation period (the time from exposure to symptoms) for Zika virus disease is not known, but is likely to be a few days to a week.”
“As of February 17, CDC had received reports of nine pregnant travelers with laboratory-confirmed Zika virus disease; 10 additional reports of Zika virus disease among pregnant women are currently under investigation,” noted the CDC on February 26th.
The airline industry is already seeing the effects on family and “babymoon” late pregnancy travel, with the greatest impact in the US coming from passengers who were intending to travel to a wide swath of Central and South America.
Most US airlines have either publicly posted change fee waivers for relevant destinations or will consider fee waivers on a case by case basis.
Strong statements from the CDC have assisted the case for those passengers avoiding travel to affected areas who are pregnant, considering becoming pregnant, or who are the partner of someone either pregnant or considering becoming pregnant.
“Because there is neither a vaccine nor prophylactic medications available to prevent Zika virus infection, CDC recommends that all pregnant women consider postponing travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. If a pregnant woman travels to an area with Zika virus transmission, she should be advised to strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites. Mosquitoes that spread Zika virus bite both indoors and outdoors, mostly during the daytime; therefore, it is important to ensure protection from mosquitoes throughout the entire day,” it says.
“Mosquito prevention strategies include wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants, using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)–registered insect repellents, using permethrin-treated clothing and gear, and staying and sleeping in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms. When used as directed on the product label, insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, and IR3535 are safe for pregnant women.”
Aircraft disinsection procedures have been stepped up this week with a World Health Organisation (WHO) declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and a recommendation that aircraft cabins be sprayed with insecticides. Expect news stories as pregnant passengers on itineraries between areas not affected by Zika discover that their inbound plane arrived from an international flight from a Zika-affected area.
Moreover, with many colleges about to close for spring break, the true impact on both airlines and other travel industry providers may not be realised until a full assessment has been made. It may, of course, be that carefree students are not fazed by the risk and are only too willing to snap up deals for destinations feeling the absence of family and babymooning travellers.
Regardless, the airline industry knows only too well how a previously rosy situation can turn into a colossal downturn as the result of external factors outside its control.