Zika virus: U.S. allows travelers with preventive vaccine into some areas, after earlier anti-travel ban

U.S. health officials on Friday allowed some people with the recommended protection against the Zika virus to enter, after a late decision to revise a ban on travel to several Latin American countries.

After travelers there were being advised to avoid Zika-prone areas for the greater part of June, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed itself on Wednesday and said they could travel to those places for work or school. But the agency told them to take precautions, such as using insect repellent.

In a notice posted on the Federal Register on Friday, the agency said it was extending the period for screenings for infection from this weekend until the week of Oct. 24, at the latest. But, some forms of travel are still prohibited.

People will be allowed into the country who have the Zika preventive vaccine that has already been imported, the notice said.

That’s good news for Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, which promotes the health of all Americans. As of early 2016, a virus strain causing the Zika outbreak was spread mainly by mosquitoes, although the risk could eventually reach people by sexual transmission. Health officials believe the virus may be responsible for cases of severe brain-related birth defects.

Zika had little known track record in humans before it began spreading in Brazil last year. Its symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. It’s most likely transmitted by an infected mosquito. But so far, there is no way to test pregnant women for Zika. Because that kind of testing can take several months, pregnant women living in areas with Zika have been advised not to travel abroad.

“This decision is a significant step forward to end the travel quarantine as a problem,” Benjamin said. “Until very recently, there was an eight-week window for travelers to those areas to return to the United States without any travel quarantine and despite having been carrying Zika.”

Zika is about five to 10 days from being transmitted during sex, which is important for someone at risk for a virus-related birth defect. Infected men must abstain from sex for at least eight weeks to protect women and the baby.

“This last-minute decision was probably mostly about Brazil’s presidential election and Trump’s impending departure from the top of the presidential race,” William Marler, a public health lawyer with the Seattle-based firm SmithGeiger, said in an email.

Trump made no mention of Zika or the disease during Tuesday’s televised debate. Other presidential candidates made mention of Zika, but Trump’s debate comments were mild compared to his earlier statements. He has called the Zika-born birth defect “really a terrible thing.”

Zika’s symptoms have not been strong enough to prompt doctors to issue a widespread rash of emergency room visits, especially among healthy adults. Some countries, including El Salvador, Brazil and Paraguay, have reported a number of Zika cases related to sexual contact.

The main reason for the initial outbreak in Brazil was the jumping of cases of microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. Brazil this week declared its Zika epidemic a global public health emergency.

Contacts: Andrea Simorola, The Washington Post; Royce Millar, Washington Post; Callie Schmidt, Washington Post

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