London - What are the Zika dangers for travellers - and the options for cancelling? We take a look at some previously-asked questions.
Q What is Zika, and what dangers can it pose?
Zika is a mosquito-borne infection caused by Zika virus. It is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is present in hot, humid locations. The infection was first identified in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947.
Sporadic outbreaks have occurred since then. Most significantly, since 2015 a large outbreak has been occurring in the Caribbean, Latin America, the Pacific, some parts of Asia and now the US state of Florida.
Only about one in five people who are infected with Zika virus develop symptoms, which include a fever, a rash and aching joints. Crucially, though,when the virus is caught by pregnant women, it may cause microcephaly, when a baby is born with an unusually small head, a disability that causes life-long problems.
That is why the World Health Organisation deems Zika a “public health emergency of international concern”.
For people who are not pregnant and not likely to become pregnant, there's no significant risk - just take precautions to minimise the chance of being bitten. The mosquito bites during the day, and indoors. To avoid mosquito bites, wear long sleeves and long trousers tucked into socks, and use Deet-based insect repellent on exposed skin.
Q How significant is the Florida outbreak?
Until now the only cases in Florida have been of people who had caught the virus elsewhere and brought it back. But now there is local transmission - that is, someone with Zika has been bitten by a mosquito which has then bitten someone else and passed on the virus.
Nearly two million visitors from the UK go to Florida each year, and tens of thousands of holidaymakers are set to go there over the next month. Public Health England has added the state to the list of locations where there is a risk of contracting Zika virus by being bitten by a mosquito.
The organisation has rated the risk as “moderate” (compared with “high” in Mexico, Brazil and most Caribbean islands), and says “Pregnant women should consider postponing non-essential travel” to the state. The key word there is “consider”; for high-risk countries, the advice is that pregnant women should definitely postpone travel.
ABTA, the travel association, says: “We understand that all cases of locally acquired Zika virus are associated in an area of about 1 square mile in Miami-Dade County. This is hundreds of miles away from the main family resort of Orlando.”
Q What should pregnant women do immediately?
Talk to their GP. He or she should be able to advise based on the plans for the trip and the very latest information from the NHS. For example, someone planning to fly into Orlando or Tampa and then embark on a fly-drive trip to the north of Florida or the rest of the US may be considered to be at negligible risk.
But someone booked to spend a fortnight in Miami could well be advised to postpone or cancel their trip.
If the GP says “don't go”, get a letter which you can then show to your travel company and/or travel insurer.
Q What are the travel companies saying?
I asked the two leading tour operators, who sell package holidays, and the two leading scheduled airlines, for their policies for customers who are pregnant and booked to travel to Florida.
Thomson says: “Customers who would like to amend to an alternative holiday offered by Thomson and First Choice, and have a doctor's note confirming they have been advised not to travel to the affected areas due to medical reasons, can do so without incurring an amendment fee.” This also applies to its subsidiary First Choice.
Thomas Cook has updated its advice for pregnant women and their travelling companions planning to travel to Florida between now and the end of the year. It says: “We are happy to offer free amendments to alternative destinations.” Thomas Cook's customer service team is contacting customers due to travel to Florida to advise them of the situation. For women who are planning on getting pregnant and are concerned about a future holiday booking, the firm says they should call “so that we can support them appropriately”.
Virgin Atlantic is the only company I have talked to that is offering cancellation as an option. It says: “Any concerned customers who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant and booked to travel to Florida should call our customer service team for help and advice.” I understand the firm will allow customers who are pregnant to cancel with a full refund, or postpone or change destination free of charge. Customers who are trying for a baby can postpone or change destination (but can't cancel).
British Airways is offering customers “the flexibility to rebook to a non-Zika affected destination of their choice.
Anyone who has booked car rental or accommodation separately - that is, not as part of a package holiday - may not be able to get a refund for these elements, and should contact their travel insurer. The Association of British Insurers says if a doctor tells someone not to travel to a particular destination, then “most travel insurance policies will cover cancellation costs that cannot be reclaimed elsewhere”. Of course, this is provided that the trip and insurance were bought before the advice changed.
Q What about other parts of the US?
The Aedes aegypti mosquito prevails only in the extreme south-east of the US, so there is no perceived threat of Zika spreading.