Zika: A Bane for Travellers and A Boost for Travel Insurance Companies

Travel Insurance and Zika Virus

It has not been a long time since the Zika virus plagued countries in South America - to the detriment of many travellers, some of whom were looking forward to spending vacation time in the continent. Governments have tried to contain the virus by imposing strict health certification and quarantine measures and it's too early to tell whether efforts have paid off. So far, only a few cases have been recorded outside of Latin America.

As travellers grow more and more concerned about their health and safety, travel insurance industry continues to benefit from the global pandemonium triggered by the virus (and fuelled by the media). There has been an explosive demand for travel insurance plans. Travellers seek comprehensive financial coverage for unexpected medical expenses and other trip-related losses in the event Zika catches them off-guard or their luggages get lost in the shuffle.

A Brief History of the Virus

For the sake of travellers who may have heard about Zika but do not know what it is or what it does to its victims, a brief background may be in order.

The first known outbreak dated back to 2007 in one of the islands of Micronesia. The virus affected less than 200 people (including suspected cases) and majority of them suffered conjunctivitis, rashes and joint pain. Five years later in 2013, French Polynesia documented another Zika outbreak which affected a great portion of the population. The virus rapidly spread out to other Pacific Islands. A number of the cases manifested the same characteristics as arbovirus infections (i.e. encephalitis). However, due to insufficient laboratory capacity and the absence of more advanced facilities, many infection cases remained undetected.

Zika is closely related to dengue (a mosquito-borne disease widespread in Asia and Africa). Mosquitoes responsible for the massive propagation of this virus are commonly known as Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. While the former thrives in the tropics and sub-tropics at present, the latter originated from Asia but can now be found in Africa, Europe, North America, Latin America and the Southern Pacific. Other variants, Aedes hensilli and Aedes polynesiensis, were suspected to be behind the first two Zika outbreaks in the Pacific. As there seems to be a data vacuum and scientists have not yet completely figured out the virus, it is implied that any Aedes specie has the potential to transmit it (if not another virus with similar features).

So how do you know if the virus has affected you or not? Here are some generic signs and symptoms to look out for (symptoms are more or less similar to dengue):

  • Fever
  • Rashes on your body
  • Pain in your joins
  • Reddening of eyes
  • Muscle pain
  • Headaches

The illness is generally mild but can last a few days to a week. Not everyone automatically becomes ill though one out of five people do. The virus sticks to the person's blood stream and can be transmitted through intercourse. Pregnant women affected by Zika may run the risk of giving birth to children with microcephaly and, more often than not, damaged brains.

No Trip Cancellation for Zika

But here is the question: to what extent will your travel insurance cover you? The answer is subject to contention. In Canada, the narrative has just changed and many travel insurance companies view the Zika virus issue in a manner that may disappoint travellers (so please take note).

The Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada has recently announced that no travel insurance company will offer trip cancellation coverage for individuals flying off to Zika-infested countries. According to Alex Bittner, “A health risk like the Zika is not an insurance benefit under a travel insurance trip cancellation policy.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also declared the Zika outbreak as an international emergency. Booking flights and trips after the WHO declaration renders any subsequent cancellation claim null and void. Travellers may get to claim for travel medical insurance but provided with sufficient medical evidence.

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