Zika Virus: Most Canadians would reconsider travel plans to avoid infection

High levels of concern for athletes and spectators traveling to 2016 Olympics in Rio 


May 12, 2016 – As summer approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, the medical community is anxiously waiting to see whether warmer weather will bring with it an epidemic of Zika virus – the mosquito-borne illness that has been linked to increased risk of birth defects in newborn babies.

While conditions in Canada are far from ideal for a Zika outbreak, a new public opinion poll from the Angus Reid Institute finds Canadians fairly concerned about the virus becoming a public health issue here; and willing to reconsider travel plans in order to avoid bringing it back with them.

Canadians are also broadly worried about the effect this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, could have in spreading the disease.

Key Findings:Zika travel ban

  • Most Canadians (70%) would either cancel (25%) or reconsider (45%) plans to travel to an area where they could contract Zika, assuming they had such plans
  • Surprisingly, those who say they’re at least somewhat likely to become pregnant in the next few years are not significantly more likely than other groups to say they would change travel plans because of the risk of Zika
  • Most Canadians express concern about Zika becoming a public health issue in Canada, either via people traveling here from infected regions (72%) or by sexual transmission (51%)

Most would at least reconsider travel plans because of Zika

Since last May – when a Zika outbreak in Brazil was linked to an increase in microcephaly, a condition which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and is associated with abnormal brain development – there has been a steady stream of news stories about the spread of the virus, and the fight to contain it.

This widespread coverage has left nine-in-ten Canadians with at least some awareness of the virus. Just 8 per cent say they “haven’t seen or heard anything about it.”

That said, fewer than one-in-five Canadians (18%) have been highly engaged with the story, following it closely and discussing it with friends and family:

Zika travel ban

Though it can be transmitted sexually, Zika is primarily contracted via mosquito bites. Researchers from Oxford University have projected that some 2.2 billion people live in “at risk” areas, where conditions for transmission of the virus are ideal.

Canada, with its temperate climate and lack of the type of mosquitoes that most commonly spread Zika, is not considered an “at risk” area. The roughly 50 cases of the virus confirmed in Canada thus far have either been sexually transmitted or brought back to the country from a place where Zika is transmitted via mosquitoes.

When asked what they would do if they had plans to travel to such a place, one-in-four Canadians (25%) say they would cancel their trip, and another 45 per cent say they would reconsider traveling, but not rule it out.

Among those paying closest attention to the news reports about the virus, the proportion who say they would cancel a trip to a region where they could get Zika from a mosquito bite rises to one-in-three (33%, see summary tables at the end of this release).

There is also a difference in opinion on this question between men and women, with the latter more likely to say they’d cancel plans (28% versus 22% of men), and less likely to say they would stick to their travel agenda.

At first glance, this finding might appear to be related to the risk Zika poses to pregnant women, but a closer look at the data finds this is not the case.

As seen in the graph that follows, the women most likely to say they would cancel their plans are those ages 55 and older, well past their child-bearing years. Younger women, meanwhile, are no more likely than young men to say they would call off travel because of Zika fears:

Zika Virus Travel Cancellation

Also more likely to say they would cancel plans outright: People with lower levels of formal education (high school or less) and those with household incomes of $50,000 or less (see comprehensive tables for greater detail).

Past travel experiences affect reaction to Zika

When shown the Oxford-developed map of regions suitable for Zika transmission, roughly three-in-ten Canadians (31%) say someone in their household – either themselves, someone else, or both – has been to one of the highlighted areas in the last five years.

These Canadians with household experience of at-risk regions have a vastly different take on the travel plans question than other respondents.

Among this group, fully half (50%) say they would stick to their plans and still visit the region. That’s five times as many as say they would cancel their plans:

Zika Virus Travel Cancellation

Concern among those likely to become pregnant?

Perhaps surprisingly, given that Zika’s most serious effects are seen in newborn babies, Canadians who identify themselves or their romantic partners as likely to become pregnant in the next few years are not noticeably more likely to say they would cancel travel to a Zika-prone region.

Members of this group are slightly less likely than those who aren’t expecting a pregnancy in the next few years to say they wouldn’t even reconsider their plans, but only by a few percentage points, as seen in the following graph:

Zika Virus Travel Cancellation

Moderate worries about Zika becoming a public health issue in Canada

Though Canada’s climate insulates it from mosquito-borne Zika transmission within its borders, health agencies are still taking precautions to avoid the virus causing a public health crisis here. Canadian Blood Services, for example, recently announced a three-week deferral period for anyone wishing to donate blood who has traveled to a place where Zika is transmitted by mosquitoes locally.

Most of the Canadian public also expresses concern about the virus turning into a public health issue at home.

Roughly half of all Canadians (51%) are either “very” or “moderately” concerned about Zika spreading through the population via sexual contact, and almost three-quarters (72%) express this degree of worry about people traveling to infected regions and bringing the virus back with them:

Zika Virus Travel Cancellation

It should be noted that for each of these scenarios, those who describe themselves as “moderately concerned” significantly outnumber those who are very concerned. Women and older Canadians (those in the 55-plus age group) – and especially older women – are the demographic groups that express the greatest concern about Zika becoming a Canadian public health issue via either of these modes (see comprehensive tables).

Most have concerns about people traveling to Brazil for the Olympics

With Brazil perhaps the country most severely affected by Zika so far, athletes and spectators alike have been reconsidering their plans to attend this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro.

Most Canadians share these concerns, with seven-in-ten (71%) saying they’re worried about the health of the Canadian Olympic team, and fully three-in-four (76%) saying they’re at least moderately concerned about people going to Brazil for the Olympics and bringing Zika back to their home countries:

Zika Virus Travel Cancellation

More than one-in-three Canadians (34%) say they’re “very concerned” about Olympic visitors bringing Zika back to their home countries – a potential epidemic that has led some to suggest that the games should be postponed or moved, something organizers have said they have no intention of doing.

 

The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) was founded in October 2014 by pollster and sociologist, Dr. Angus Reid. ARI is a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research organization established to advance education by commissioning, conducting and disseminating to the public accessible and impartial statistical data, research and policy analysis on economics, political science, philanthropy, public administration, domestic and international affairs and other socio-economic issues of importance to Canada and its world.

Click here for the full report including tables and methodology

Click here for comprehensive data tables

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey

MEDIA CONTACT: Shachi Kurl, Executive Director: 604.908.1693 shachi.kurl@angusreid.org

Image Credit – Mario Tama/Getty

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