Fear of Zika virus spreads to Latin America travel

Americans increasingly are avoiding travel to Latin America, concerned about exposing themselves to the fast-spreading Zika virus that is sweeping across the region, a poll finds.

Forty-one percent of those polled who were aware of the disease said they planned to avoid travel to the Caribbean, and Central and South America, the Reuters/Ipsos poll found. The mosquito-borne virus is suspected as the cause of thousands of birth defects in Brazil.

As a result, the World Health Organization has declared an international health emergency, and the Centers for Disease Control issued a travel alert last month advising pregnant women to consider delaying travel to outbreak areas to avoid the possibility of being infected.

Concern is growing that the Zika virus could hurt tourism in the region at the height of the cold-weather travel season and have a huge impact on the 2016 Olympic Games, being held in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Will Brazil's Carnival spread the Zika virus?

One Florida travel agent who specializes in booking travel to Central and South America said 20 percent of the trips she's booked have been canceled by customers who fear becoming infected. Others, however, report seeing little or no drop in ticket sales.

While many Americans expressed concern about travel to Latin America, the Reuters poll showed that nearly half (48 percent) hadn't changed the likelihood of them visiting affected areas, while others didn't know.

Concern about Zika hasn't affected ticket sales at Latam Airlines' Tam Brazilian unit, the regional carrier said. As with many airlines with operations in the region, Latam Airlines is offering fare refunds or itinerary changes to pregnant women planning to travel to areas affected by the virus.

Other airlines, including the three largest U.S. airlines -- American (AAL), Delta (DAL) and United (UAL), and cruise lines are offering similar options for Zika-wary travelers to cancel or postpone travel. But, so far at least it, appears that requests for refunds and changes to travel dates have yet to begin pouring in.

Fear of being bitten Zika-carrying mosquitos also failed to grip the hundreds of thousands of revelers at this year's Carnival festival. Men and women were dressed in typical minimal fashion for the celebration, which runs through Wednesday, wearing little more than shorts and bikini tops.

Authorities have been passing out leaflets to party-goers telling them how to prevent the spread of the Zika virus. Carnival is seen as a test of whether the Zika virus may scare tourists away from visiting Brazil during the Olympics scheduled for August and September.

CDC issues guidelines to stem Zika spread through sex

Athletes and staff concerned for their health because of the Zika virus should consider not attending the games, the United States Olympic Committee told U.S. sports federations in conference call late last month.

During the call, USOC didn't indicate they were concerned that large numbers of athletes would avoid Rio or that Zika could derail the games, the two federation leaders told Reuters. Rather, they expressed optimism that risk of exposure to the virus could be reduced through mosquito-control measures, the efforts of health agencies and Brazil's cooler winter weather.

Officials have declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico, where at least 22 people have been reported to have been infected by Zika. The U.S. territory has implemented a price freeze on products needed to prevent the disease, authorities said.

Health experts advise travelers to follow guidelines from the CDC and urging people to be cautious. The agency recommends pregnant women to avoid contact with semen from anyone who has been exposed to the Zika virus by abstaining from sex or using condoms.

The American Red Cross has also requested prospective donors who have visited countries affected by the viral outbreak to wait at least 28 days before giving blood.