I remember looking down at my polka-dotted legs as I lay by the pool of a small hostel in El Tunco, El Salvador. As I fought the urge to scratch, I counted the number of mosquito bites. Thirty-seven. I had thirty-seven bites on my legs, not to mention a few on my arms and the one driving me crazy on my back. I shrugged, sprayed my legs with more 99.9 percent DEET spray, and continued basking in the sun. A week after I tallied up my bites, on the last day of my trip to Central America, I suddenly felt feverish and exhausted. The flight home was miserable and I was plagued with a bloody nose and ears that wouldn’t pressurize for hours.
Luckily, I had already scheduled a routine doctor’s appointment for three days after my return home. Between the fever and the full-body rash that developed, my doctor insisted on blood tests to check for various tropical mosquito-borne viruses. Among them: the dreaded Zika virus.
Now, anyone who owns a television, has access to the Internet, or reads the news knows about Zika. Images of small-headed newborns and warnings from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were plastered all over the place last spring, and it seemed that every time I blinked, another destination was placed on the “do not travel” list, due to Zika. At the time, I worked for a small travel agency and was well versed in Zika “fun facts” before traveling to Central America, but I wasn’t planning on getting pregnant anytime soon so saw no reason to cancel my trip.
By the time I officially received a positive diagnosis for Zika, I had no symptoms. The virus had already run its course, which usually lasts about a week. I had been through a fever, which gave way to red spots all over my body, followed by pain in my ankle and knee joints—all within the span of one week. After that? Nothing.
The worst effect I experienced was the multitude of people who asked me if I was OK in a tone of voice that said “yeah, you’re probably going to die.” No matter how many times I asserted that I was fine, I was always met with “puppy eyes” and disbelief. These people had been convinced by the intentionally terrifying images and stories all over the media that Zika was a horrific, life-changing disease. However, as it turns out, both the media and my concerned peers got one thing right: Zika did change my life. Contracting the Zika virus taught me that all travel comes with risks. It could be the risk of terrorism, of danger, of getting lost, or of contracting a tropical disease. But with risks come rewards. If I hadn’t risked contracting Zika, there is so much I would have missed out on.
I would not have felt the thrill of being surrounded by volcanoes in Antigua, Guatemala. I would not have experienced a rush of excitement as I reached the top of an ancient Mayan pyramid in Copan, Honduras. My taste buds would have never savored the wonder of the Salvadoran pupusa. Zika changed my life because I learned that I would gladly endure one week of illness in order to experience the amazing things the world has to offer.
I’m no doctor and I can’t tell you what you should or should not do concerning your own health. But if you are afraid to visit a place because of a Zika-related CDC warning, I can tell you that the risk can be worth the reward. If you and your partner are not looking to get pregnant in the near future, the Zika virus generally need not be feared. Only one in five people who contract Zika actually present any symptoms at all, and my own experience was not that bad. If you can live through the flu, you can easily live through Zika. The off-chance risk that you’ll both contract the virus and present symptoms is not worth canceling your trip or avoiding a wonderful destination altogether.
There will always be some disaster, some disease, some reason to stay hidden at home, but with so many amazing places to see, cultures to experience, and people to meet, traveling abroad is worth the risk. No virus is going to hold me back from experiencing the world, and it shouldn’t hold you back either.