U.S. and international health officials are easing warnings against travel to regions with Zika virus because the threat has diminished markedly since the virus began to sweep across the globe four years ago.
The World Health Organization designated Zika a global health emergency in 2016, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told women who were pregnant or might become pregnant to stay away from nearly 100 countries or regions. The mosquito-borne virus can cause severe birth defects.
Last month, the CDC quietly downgraded its warning; a spokeswoman said the WHO will soon follow with similar, less-restrictive travel recommendations. Officials said the disease has died down in most of the world — although they think it is still circulating at a much lower level.
The new CDC guidelines urge women who are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant to talk to their health care providers about potential Zika risks before traveling. But with spring and summer travel season approaching, clinicians say it's not clear how women and their doctors can get the best information.
The Zika pandemic in the Americas and the Caribbean exploded in 2015. The virus is still circulating in Southeast Asia and South Asia, but large numbers of new infections and Zika-related birth defects are not being reported, said Albert Ko, an infectious disease expert at the Yale School of Public Health. The only region reporting an active Zika outbreak is in India’s northwestern state of Rajasthan. The new CDC recommendations urge people to avoid travel only to places where there are active Zika outbreaks.
For the 88 countries and regions that have previously reported cases of the virus, and where there is currently no outbreak, "Zika virus has probably fallen below the radar," said Martin Cetron, director of CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine.
"Where there are those big outbreaks, we're definitely going to tell you not to go," Cetron said. "Where there is a range of possibilities, from no Zika to low-level background Zika, we're going to tell you there's been virus there before; it could still be there. If you're a zero-risk person, don't go. If you're not, you decide."