Are Singaporeans' travel plans and insurance going to be affected by the Zika virus?

Are Singaporeans' travel plans and insurance going to be affected by the Zika virus?

Based on the number of inconsiderate neighbours breeding mosquitoes in the potted plants on their HDB balconies, Singaporeans aren't that afraid of dengue fever.

But when it comes to the zika virus, people are a lot more wary. There may not have been any confirmed cases of zika virus infection in Singapore to date, but the horror stories of a purported link between zika virus infection and birth defects have made people sit up and take notice.

If, like many Singaporeans, you're an avid traveller, are your travel plans and insurance going to be affected by the zika virus? To date, there have been no reports of Singaporeans or holders of Singapore travel insurance policies being struck with the zika virus, so we don't really have a precedent to go by.

But based on the exclusions travel insurance companies typically insert, here are some things you should know.

The main risks of a zika virus infection

The problem with the zika virus is that you have it without exhibiting any symptoms. Heck, for all you know, all of us could be infected right know without even knowing it.

When you travel, your main concerns about the zika virus should be:

  • Coming down with symptoms and needing to seek medical treatment. The good news is that dying from the virus is quite rare, and most people don't even get sick enough to require hospitalisation. Many may however need to consult a doctor, and you'll rightly want to seek reimbursement for these costs from your insurance provider.
  • Now, where things get more serious is if you or your partner are pregnant, and the zika virus results in a birth defect. While a definitive link has not been proven yet, it is strongly suspected that zika virus infection has led to thousands of cases of microcephaly in newborns. Should that happen, you will face a huge financial burden caring for a disabled child in the longterm.
  • You might choose to cancel or change the dates of your trip to avoid the zika virus.

What does your travel insurance cover?

Never assume your travel insurer will cover every possible mishap under the sun. Other than alien abductions and an illegal driving accident, there are other situations where you might be denied a claim. Every policy is different, but we've based these general guidelines on NTUC Income's basic travel insurance policy. Make sure you read the terms of yours.

  • You are usually not allowed to make any pregnancy or childbirth-related claims: Note that most travel insurance policies will not allow you to make claims for anything related to pregnancy or childbirth. Add to that the fact that science has not confirmed that birth defects are caused by the zika virus, and you'll want to be very wary if you suspect you are pregnant or intend to try for a child soon after your trip.
  • You will not be covered when travelling overseas against medical or government advice: This is a grey area. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains a list of travel advisories and warnings. If a location appears on the list and you willfully travel there, your insurance claim can get rejected. However, while the MFA has not issued a formal warning against travelling to zika-stricken places, NEA has menitoned that pregnant women should reconsider travel to countries with outbreaks and local transmission, although it is unlikely the insurance companies will use this against you for non-pregnancy related claims, since the NEA has acknowledged that "no public health justification for restrictions on travel" have been recommended by the WHO. But definitely check MFA's list of travel notices before you embark on a trip to affected areas, just in case things change.
  • Cancelling or changing your travel plans: Should you choose to cancel, postpone, shorten or disrupt your trip thanks to zika virus panic, the usual rules will apply, depending on your travel insurance policy. The thing to note is that most basic travel insurance policies will only let you make a claim for completely cancelling your trip if you do so for fairly serious reasons (like somebody in your family dying or WHO declaring a zika virus epidemic at your destination). If you experience a delay trying to get back to Singapore because you got infected with the zika virus, make sure you get the doctor to write a report confirming that you are seriously ill.
  • Medical expenses overseas: So long as your medical claims don't fall under any of the exceptions in the policy (like the ones we mentioned above), you should be able to claim for doctor's visits even if they're zika virus-related. Again, be sure to obtain a written report from the doctor and retain all bills and receipts. Most policies will also let you make a claim for medical treatment sought in Singapore upon your return, although if you do seek zika virus treatment here we're sure we'll be hearing about it on the news.

Where are the affected countries?

In case you're about to book your next big holiday and want to avoid locations experiencing zika virus outbreaks or transmissions, here's the list from NEA as of 27 Jan 2016:

  • Countries experiencing outbreaks: Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Martinique, Panama, Suriname
  • Countries with local transmission or exported cases: Barbados, Bolivia, The Dominican Republic, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guayana, Haiti, Mexico, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Samoa, Thailand, US Virgin Islands, Venezuela

What are some airlines, cruiselines and hotels doing in response?

Some airlines, cruiselines, hotels and travel companies are allowing travellers to change their travel plans free of charge or offering refunds in light of the zika virus issue.

The list of companies that have done so include United Airlines, JetBlue, American Airlines, British Airways and Delta Airlines. If you're scheduled to fly or are about to book your tickets, call up the airline and ask about their policies. Some will require a doctor's letter before they'll let you rebook or cancel.

Hotel chains may be willing to offer cancellation waivers as well, although these are rarely articulated officially. Hilton claims it will be doing so on a case-by-base basis. When in doubt, it's best to check before making a booking.

In all honesty, if you've already booked a trip and are not a pregnant lady, it's probably more worthwhile to safeguard against being bitten by mosquitoes than it is to go nuts over the news reports.


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