January 28, 2016 3:28 pm
Updated: January 28, 2016 8:38 pm

Trip booked to Zika-affected region? Here’s how Canadian airlines will help you

WATCH: The greatest risk the Zika virus poses is to unborn babies. The virus causes mild symptoms in most people, but it's been linked to birth defects, prompting warnings about travel to affected areas. Robin Gill looks at what Canadians need to know.

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Health officials are warning pregnant women to reconsider travel to countries grappling with Zika virus. Much of the Caribbean and Latin America – where many sun-starved Canucks vacation – is on high alert. If you’ve booked a flight or vacation package to Zika-affected countries, is it too late to change your travel plans?

Canada’s major airline carriers say they’re allowing pregnant women to make adjustments to their trips – their policies differ, though.

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READ MORE: Should Canadians worry about Zika virus?

Here’s what each airline told Global News when asked if Canadian women could alter their travel itineraries if they were headed to affected regions.

Air Canada

“Air Canada (and Air Canada Vacations) has the same policy [as U.S. carriers allowing customers to alter trip plans]. We are allowing changes without change fees or refunds. We are advising customers with concerns to contact the Air Canada Medical Desk,” spokesman, Peter Fitzpatrick, said in an email to Global News.

READ MORE: 5 things Canadians need to know about Zika virus

“We take our direction on these matters from the Public Health Agency of Canada, the World Health Organization and other such bodies,” he said.

WestJet

We have responded to the Zika Virus warning and are offering relief on our cancellation policy by allowing our guests to change or cancel prior to  travelling to infected areas. Refunds will be given in the form of future travel credit,” spokeswoman, Lauren Stewart, said in an email.

“This is an evolving situation that we at WestJet are watching closely. We encourage our guests who have questions or concerns to contact us. We are happy to discuss their options,” she said. She said the carrier will work with concerned guests on a case-by-case basis.

READ MORE: B.C. woman warns others against booking vacations while Zika virus continues to spread

Air Transat

“For pregnant women who booked a trip with Transat to one of our destinations affected by the virus and listed by the Pan American Health Organization, we authorize, upon receipt of a medical note attesting of the pregnancy, requests for date or destination changes,” spokeswoman, Debbie Cabana, said in an email.

Sunwing

“Sunwing Vacations, in consultation with our destination partners is monitoring the Zika virus very carefully and has established a policy that addresses the concerns of pregnant customers who have approached us on a case by case basis. For customers due to travel who have not purchased cancellation insurance, and have been advised against traveling to affected areas by their physician, we are requesting that they provide us with a medical note,” spokeswoman, Jacqueline Grossman, said in an emailed statement.

“Upon review of their individual circumstances, Sunwing will accommodate these customer’s requests for changes with suitable options depending on their travel needs,” she said.

Vacation packages booked through Flight Centre

“Because Flight Centre is a travel agency – we don’t own the planes/hotels – we have to follow our suppliers’ policies, it’s not us that charge the cancellation/change fees,” spokeswoman, Allison Wallace, explained in an email.

READ MORE: What pregnant women need to know about Zika virus and travel

“So far the Canadian carriers and suppliers of all-inclusives are saying that until an official travel warning is issued by the Canadian government customers wanting to cancel or change will have to incur the fees associated. That being said, pregnant women that can provide a note from a doctor are being dealt with on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

U.S. carriers

All three major U.S. airlines – American Airlines, United, and Delta – are allowing customers to cancel or postpone their trips if they’re travelling to Zika-affected areas, too.

United’s cancellation policy extends to all countries named by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while American Airlines covers flights to nine countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean, according to U.S. reports.

Should Canadians travel to affected regions?

Zika virus is “spreading explosively” and will touch every part of the Americas – except for Canada and Chile, global health officials warn.

Health officials in El Salvador, Brazil, Jamaica, Ecuador, Honduras and Colombia told residents to postpone pregnancy for up to two years until doctors better understand if the infection tampers with brain development in infants.

READ MORE: Zika virus – Don’t have babies until 2018, countries warn

So far, it’s been linked to a 20-fold increase in a rare defect called microcephaly in babies, in which the newborns are born with irregularly small heads and underdeveloped brains.

For its part, the Public Health Agency of Canada issued its own public health notice and travel health notice. It upped its travel recommendations, too.

“It is recommended that pregnant women and those considering becoming pregnant discuss their travel plans with their health care provider to assess their risk and consider postponing travel to areas where the Zika virus is circulating in the Americas,” the PHAC advisory says.

READ MORE: Olympics in Brazil could spark spread of Zika virus abroad, Canadian docs warn

The CDC names 14 affected regions so far: right now, the list of affected countries includes: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

Canadian researchers project that Zika could make its way into Florida, southern Texas, Mexico and the Caribbean – all popular vacation destinations for winter-weary Canucks.

What to do if you’re travelling to affected regions

If you’re travelling to affected regions, health officials recommend that you consult with your health-care provider six weeks before you travel.

To protect against bug bites, they say you should cover up with light-coloured, long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Insect repellant and bed nets, also treated with insecticide, are also recommended.

Read more about safety precautions here.

-With files from the Associated Press

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© 2016 Shaw Media

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