The sudden explosion of infections by the Zika virus in tropical and semi-tropical areas in the Americas and the Pacific Rim in 2015-2016 has brought tragic suffering to thousands and stoked travelers' fears worldwide. Zika is not a new disease; South Asia and Africa have long endured it; but the growth of travel and trade among "Southern" countries has enabled its spread. Southeast Asia and Mainland China have also seen cases (among travelers coming from known-endemic areas), and the disease is eventually expected to establish itself there as readily as it has in the warmer, wetter areas of the Western Hemisphere.
While Zika is certainly something to be aware of when considering travel to East Asia, other mosquito-borne illnesses have and continue to cause hardship for residents and concern for visitors:
Advice from the Centers for Disease Control, as well as state and provincial health departments, stress that nearly all cases of infections among travelers happen when visiting rural, forest, wetland, or beach areas. Cities are much less-likely to have *uncontrolled* mosquito populations. If you should head into the countryside, scenes like this rural rice-farming village in Guangxi province should make it clear there's plenty of mosquito-friendly habitat. In the forests and wetlands, the mosquito species often found there like to bite during the day, too - just as you're touring through.
But even in the big cities, just a tiny amount of stagnant water can turn into a breeding hotbed, and it only takes days for a swarm to hatch. East Asian cities tend to be built on riverbanks and ocean ports, so there's no shortage of places to lay eggs. Factor in the summertime rainy season, and it simply doesn't matter what city or country you visit - you need to practice personal mosquito safety precautions!
Insect control is very big business in East Asia - so if you were to do some shopping at a hardware store or general market, you'd be sure to find an impressive array of pesticides and traps ... which we'd never advise you to handle, buy, or use. Too many chances to get something wrong - and you'd never know if products are held to the same standards / application guidelines as found in the US or Canada.
Not just private citizens and businesses, but municipal authorities too, get into serious mosquito-control mode as the rainy season threatens. Expect to see fogging and spraying in the cities during your travels, and steer clear of a freshly-misted area until you can't see any of it in the air.
Hotel windows generally don't open, or if they do, by just a crack; keep them closed at night. In a proper hotel building with air-conditioning, you shouldn't expect any middle-of-the-night buzzing.
Nighttime is the popular time in cities for street markets, food fairs, and temple festivals. If you want to take in local flavor, you'll need to be outside after dark during your trip. Right around sunset is also the favorite time for urban mosquitoes to feed - and they're attracted to heat, light, and carbon dioxide, so a crowd of people in line at a food stall is especially tasty.
You might not see many mosquitoes - you might not feel them biting you - and you might not even get a welt or itchy skin afterward. But a bite is a bite, and you'd hate for you or your kids to get sick. And it's really not hard to defend yourself:
- Before your trip - check the Centers for Disease Control "Destinations" page for country-specific advice. Talk with your family doctor to review any potential risk factors, and get immunizations if necessary.
- Clothing - wear loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Light, breathable fabrics are great because you need to be comfortable in tropical weather, and clothes like these are also super for preventing sunburn! If swimming outdoors, cover up or change out of swimsuits as soon as you can after leaving the water.
- Repellents - you'll want to bring a supply with you, as you might not be able to pick any up during your trip (or read the package.)
- You don't want to take canned repellents as the cans could explode in your baggage during flight. Pump sprays get around that problem, but a bigger bottle still could leak in transit, so look for a "travel size" package. Even better are creams and wipes because they're easy to carry around, and wipes are also security-friendly. For applying to skin, there are several chemicals which repellents use, including lemon-eucalyptus oil, picaridin, IR3535, and the most-common and highly-effective DEET. DEET can be used with kids as young as 2 years old. The Environmental Protection Agency has a resource to help you find the repellent right for you.
- Cover any exposed areas such as wrists and the backs of your hands; ankles and tops of your feet; your neck, ears, and forehead. If wearing short sleeves, a skirt, or shorter pants, cover that exposed skin as well. Avoid sensitive areas like your eyes, nose, and lips, as well as fingertips. Be sure to wash the repellent off once back inside for the night.
- If you are going to be traveling into forest, farm, or wetland areas (especially for several days or longer), applying a repellent to your clothing may also be a good idea: for that, the chemical permethrin is usually recommended for its long-lasting properties - but it should not be applied to your skin.
Mosquitoes are a fact of life in most parts of the world, and even though as a traveler you don't have access to all the tools you'd use when dealing with them at home, you can still manage and minimize risk from them on the road with minor effort - so you can concentrate on getting to know the people and places you visit.