As if Tourism and the lot of holidaymakers hadn’t suffered enough after 2015; this year has revealed the latest threat to Travel through the arrival of the Zika Crisis! Through this past week I have seen all sorts of sensationalist headlines, some declaring that you are not safe from the ‘head shrinking virus’. So, I thought it was time to set out a few facts to help you understand the issues and how it may, or may not affect your travel plans!
What is the Zika Virus?
This is a virus that is passed on by Mosquitoes – the virus is currently predominant in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Recent reports show that those affected by the virus have returned to other countries like Spain and the USA. It is not the only virus that can be passed on by Mosquitoes; other viruses include Dengue Fever and Chikungunya. The species of Mosquitoes that are spreading this virus are called ‘Aedes Aegypti’ and can be found throughout the region and some of the Southern United States; this is not as we understand it, a species that are currently predominant in Western Europe.
If I catch Zika, what are likely to be my symptoms?
The CDC advise that it is normally only 1 in 5 who become ill following exposure to a Zika carrying mosquito. The incubation period is considered to anything between a few days to a week. You should expect to experience fever, joint pains and rashes and possibly conjunctivitis. You may also suffer with headaches and muscle pain. It is thought that symptoms can rest with a sufferer from between a few days to a week and again, the virus can remain in your system for about a week but can remain in some people’s blood for longer. Blood donors who have been exposed to the virus are being currently being deferred from making a donation for 28 days.
Are there any other concerns about Zika I should be aware of?
One of the big concerns relates to microcephaly. Microcephaly arises when a foetus develops an abnormally small head accompanied by developmental problems with the brain. It must be stressed however; the concern presently relates to a large number of babies born in South America with microcephaly. At this stage whilst Zika is thought to be the cause of the microcephaly condition, it has not yet been definitively proved that Zika is the cause of the problem. One reason why it is thought to be difficult to fully establish the link is that in countries where abortion is available, and without any previous link being made to the virus, pregnancies were terminated and as a result useful data has been lost which would have helped to establish a causal link.
Another concern relates to the, so far, one case of suspected sexual transmission in Texas. The ‘victim’s’ partner apparently returned from one affected region unaware that they were infected with the virus. Again, it should be stressed that this is an isolated case at this time, but advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) is that those visiting affected areas should give due consideration to the practice of safe sex – they also offer further updated guidance on sexual activity between partners.
I am planning to start a family – or – I am pregnant; should I worry if I am about to travel?
The consensus appears to be unanimous; pregnant women should consider ‘postponing’ their trips.
Those considering taking steps to start a family whilst on holiday should seek medical advices before travel and in any event, if they travel to an infected zone, to try to stay away from mosquito dominant areas and to take all steps to prevent bites or stings.
For those concerned that a Zika infection will cause complications to any future pregnancy, the CDC advises that current information does not suggest that a risk exists; they point to the fact that the virus stays in the system for about a week post infection and therefore this would suggest that a problem will not occur. However, they do strongly recommend that post infection, if you are planning to start a family, that you seek the advice of your GP.
What are they doing to try and stop the virus?
WHO has declared an emergency in the affected areas. Governments of the region are working now to eradicate to mosquito population and manage the health crisis, with the help of WHO.
The situation I suspect will keep changing over the following days and weeks as WHO determines the nature of the overall risk to human health.
In the meantime, there are reports that scientists have found a way to introduce mosquitoes into the population which introduce a virus to stop mosquitoes from breeding; other reports suggest that a bacterium can be introduced to the mosquito population with the same effect.
How have the Travel Companies reacted?
Helpfully some of the Tour Operators have recognised the serious nature of this event and the potential impact on those holidaymakers who are already pregnant. We understand that they are offering changes to holidays without charge or refunds. We would stress however that not all companies appear to be taking this route. These major companies are clearly following the ‘Significant Change’ rights contained in the Package Travel Regulations. We note that some companies are partially implementing those rights but then demanding money from holidaymakers for any changes!
What are my Rights?
Regulation 12 & 13 of the Package Travel Regulations should be your first port of call!
Regulation 12 simply states that where a ‘Significant Change’ occurs to the terms of the contract, then the ‘Organiser’, in other words the Tour Operator, has to advise you of those changes and offer you a full refund without penalty or receive your acceptance of those changes.
So what constitutes a ‘Significant Change’?
This has never really been defined by the courts and is not really identified in the Regulations. That said, it will often be based around common sense. So, for example, if the hotel is not built, or they have overbooked the hotel, or there is a major outbreak of illness on the ship or hotel, these could be said to significantly change the contract you paid for. In 2015, there were difficulties in resorts after terror attacks, a plane crash and concerns on security. No one would dispute that a ‘significant change’ had occurred. Equally, the Zika virus is said to represent a pandemic; there are serious health concerns, some of which are not fully determined. The simple way to look at this is to ask the question; ‘will the event that is significantly altering the situation at my destination affect the viability of my contract?’. If it means that you will not be able to go out and freely enjoy the country you have gone to see, or that there are serious security issues, or that there is a major health crisis affecting a destination that either affects all Consumers or certain categories, then this could be a threat to the operation of the contract and therefore your ability to enjoy all the elements you have purchased.
Another question we get asked is; ‘But is it all down to the Tour Operator or Foreign Office to decide what constitutes a ‘Significant Change’? I think the simple answer is, no! Contracts are agreements between 2 parties. It is the responsibility of each party to make sure that the contract will work. If a Consumer believes that problems exist at a destination that could affect the contract, then I say they are obligated to present their concerns, under the ‘Significant Change’ banner to the Tour Company. To do this it will be necessary to present evidence; not just what you see on the BBC nightly news, but from various press, radio & TV reports from around the world, including other countries Foreign relations departments. That then presents the Tour Company with the clear option to respond and act according to the Regulations.
What are my Regulation 13 Rights?
Once a ‘Significant Change’ has been identified and Regulation 12 invoked, then the Travel Company, under Regulation 13, must offer you either an upgrade where it is available, a downgrade where it is available with the price difference being returned to you, or your money back. There is nothing in the Regulations that state that you have to pay any money!
In the case of the Zika virus, whilst Regulation 13 offers the opportunity for compensation, it would be unlikely that you would receive this because it could be said to be an event that was ‘unforeseen’. That said, if it could be shown that they had prior knowledge, perhaps going back to 2015, then maybe there is an opportunity to claim that compensation. An important point to bear in mind on this latter point; the Travel Industry clearly rely heavily on UK Foreign Office Advisories – don’t forget, they feed into those advisories! Last week, the UK Foreign Office updated many advisories to reflect that in many destinations, the Zika Virus had been detected in 2015 and 2016 (one example, the Dominican Republic). It would be interesting to see how those same advisories were worded in 2015 and what prompted the Foreign Office to change all the advisories en-masse!
If my holiday is affected, what should I do?
The first thing is not to panic!
Secondly, based on current medical advices, ask yourself are you likely to be seriously impacted by the virus?
If you are concerned, you should seek medical advices before departure!
You should carry out comprehensive research; use some of the links in this article and make sure that you research news outlets at your intended destination.
If you are currently the one category of holidaymaker most likely to be affected at this time, then make sure you have written confirmation of your pregnancy and present that and your new found knowledge of ‘Significant Change’ to the Travel Company and obtain your rights!
If you are currently unlikely to be affected (based on current medical opinion), then maintain your watch on the situation and continue and collate your research – if the situation changes, make your challenge based on ‘Significant Change’.
If you are about to travel to any affected destination, then, follow all advices from health authorities and make sure that you stay away from heavily infested areas and ensure that you take all steps to protect yourself from bites and stings!
What happens if the situation changes?
I will be keeping a watch on the situation and will update this article as and when new information arises; hopefully this will offer you some reassurance!