Zika virus affects destination weddings, babymoons; New York offers tests to pregnant travelers

NEW YORK -- Pregnant women in New York who have recently traveled to countries impacted by the Zika virus can now get free tests for the infection.

The state Department of Health issued an advisory about the free testing to health care providers around the state on Thursday.

Authorities had already announced free testing for anyone exhibiting signs of the virus. So far, 11 New Yorkers have tested positive for Zika. All had traveled to Brazil and other places where mosquito bites have been linked to the infection and an increase in the number of children born with a congenital brain and skull condition.

Symptoms are usually mild, can include a rash, fever, joint pain, or conjunctivitis and appear a few days after a bite by an infected mosquito.

Meanwhile, some travelers are trading in Caribbean and Latin American vacations for ski trips and Hawaii as they rethink destination weddings, babymoons and other getaways in light of the Zika virus.

Dr. Brian Levine, a New York City fertility doctor, "spent the majority of the last week counseling patients about (the) Zika virus. I've had to have discussions about canceling babymoons, canceling trips before starting in vitro fertilization and even having husbands provide a frozen semen sample because they plan on traveling to a Zika-affected region for work."

But not all doctors are saying you should worry.

"You would be OK and you're not putting yourself at any additional risk. I would just take extra precautions," said Dr. Ashley Thomas Martino with St. John's University.

New Yorker Mark LoCastro and his pregnant wife canceled a babymoon - the term for a couple's getaway before a baby is born - to St. Lucia. "We instead traveled to Charleston, South Carolina," he said. He's seen friends who are rescheduling trips post new destinations on social media with the hashtag #zikafreezone.

Laura E. Lynn, who is five months pregnant, canceled a vacation to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, her parents had planned with Lynn, her sister and their husbands. "I couldn't imagine being stuck inside in long sleeves, paranoid about being bitten and unable to relax," she said.

Travel agency owner Sandy Anderson helped a couple plan a Hawaii getaway rather than the Caribbean because they were "uncomfortable" with the risks posed by Zika.

"We also have a destination wedding going out in about two weeks to Mexico, and two couples canceled because both of the women are expecting babies," said Anderson, owner of Travel Leaders Riverdale in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Her agency's website now includes a link to the Centers for Disease Control advisory on Zika, and she's making sure that clients understand the value of "cancel for any reason" travel insurance.

Hung Thai, an engineer who lives in the Seattle area, is maintaining plans for a December wedding in Mexico's Riviera Maya. "The biggest point we'll be making to our guests is to buy travel insurance," he said. He and his fiancee, Lina Jiang, are telling friends who are starting families that "we're absolutely OK if they cancel. We would not want them to travel to our wedding if they get pregnant." On the other hand, for most travelers, the risks appear to be limited, "so there's no need to push the panic button."

Thai's wedding planner, Carla Schipper, who works at Unique Romance Travel & Destination Weddings, said she's telling clients if they're expecting or trying to get pregnant, "travel should be to the Hawaiian islands, South Pacific and Europe."

Kenneth Robison was able to get a refund from Spirit Airlines after canceling a trip to Nicaragua. He and his wife had arranged for his mother to watch their toddler for a week in March so they could get away, but they canceled because they hope to have a second child at some point, and "thatched bungalows on the beach of a rainforest island without air conditioning or even closed windows would put us at extra risk of mosquitoes."

"We are looking at going skiing in Canada instead," he said.

Major U.S. airlines said they would let pregnant women, and in some cases their traveling companions, rebook trips without penalty or get refunds for flights to areas covered by the CDC travel advisory. Many cruise lines, tour operators and other travel providers are also providing credits for future trips or alternate itineraries for pregnant travelers.

Travel Insured International saw a 30 percent increase in the purchase of "cancel for any reason" travel insurance policies during January compared with January 2015, "which we are attributing to the Zika virus," said spokesman Isaac Cymrot. Julie Loffredi, editor at InsureMyTrip.com, also reports a "spike in interest in cancel-for-any-reason coverage," and a 20 percent increase in calls from concerned travelers, "many of whom are pregnant."

Some travelers are undeterred. Christy Nielson, who lives in Dallas, just arrived in Mexico with a group of friends. "We talked about Zika, but decided we'd just pack a lot of bug spray and long sleeves rather than cancel. Luckily, none of the women are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant, so the risk seems manageable," she said.

Tara Cannon, a Vancouver, Canada, mother of two who blogs at PintSizePilot.com, is also planning a Mexico trip. She's gone with her family to other locales where mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue and chikungunya are endemic. They use repellent and for sleeping, mosquito nets. "We are fully used to being vigilant when it comes to mosquitoes and try our hardest to avoid getting bitten," she said.

Marissa Siebel-Siero's sister is going ahead with a wedding in St. John in the Caribbean even though "multiple wedding guests have canceled due to being pregnant."

The bride-to-be is putting it all in perspective: "She is supplying bug spray in all of the welcome baskets."
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