ITIJ 219 | April 2019
Mark Gallivan, Lead Data Scientist at Metabiota, explores how analysis of social media can help to calculate the economic burden of disease outbreaks such as Zika
A relaxing or romantic holiday taken by parents-to-be before their baby is born.
- Oxford English Dictionary
Zika, microcephaly, and Latin America
Expectant parents ask themselves many questions when deciding upon a babymoon locale. Should I go somewhere with a beach? How expensive are the hotels? And now, thanks to the Zika virus, does this location put my baby at risk for microcephaly?
Evidence is now overwhelming, but the link connecting microcephaly (abnormal smallness of a newborn baby’s head) and the Zika virus was originally met with doubt. Before 2015, Zika virus outbreaks (spread by mosquitoes) were much smaller, with no reports of microcephaly. Over the course of the recent Latin American Zika outbreak, Brazil and other countries began to report abnormally high numbers of cases and babies born with microcephaly.
The link between Zika and microcephaly was a game changer for how the public health community responded to the virus. The World Health Organization declared the Zika outbreak to be a Global Health Emergency and governments began awareness campaigns largely aimed at pregnant women. Travellers also responded; however, not much is known about whether or not the population with the most to fear – expectant parents – reduced travel to Latin America.
How did Zika change travel plans for pregnant women?
Despite being in the big data era, tourism data specifically for pregnant women is limited. Tourism statistics may not be publicly available, and what data is available doesn’t capture the tourist’s pregnancy status. However, a study we recently published (Using Social Media to Estimate Zika’s Impact on Tourism: #babymoon, 2014-2017) shows that Twitter can help because expectant parents often tell the world when they travel to an exotic locale (e.g. ‘Love the Caribbean! #babymoon’) through their tweets.
We found a large drop in the percentage of #babymoon tweets mentioning representative Latin American locations after the link between Zika and microcephaly became well-known (figure –
Panel A). In fact, the odds of mentioning Zika-affected locations in #babymoon tweets decreased more than three-fold after the link became established. Conversely, there was a small but minor increase in the percentage of #babymoon tweets mentioning alternative Zika-free locations (Figure – Panel B).
What are the downstream impacts?
Of course, the health impacts of Zika are paramount, but the reduction in the amount of #babymoon tweets mentioning Zika-affected regions represents a huge economic cost. Thousands of cancelled babymoon (and non-babymoon) trips resulted in thousands of empty flights to the affected region, more vacant hotel rooms, and less tourist expenditures for restaurants, tour guides and attractions.
And in addition to private commercial loss, governments lost an extraordinary amount of tax revenue, especially for regions which rely heavily upon tourists. Miami-Dade County in Florida suffered a $1.6-million loss solely from a drop in hotel taxes from the Zika outbreak in 2017. Across Latin America, the estimated commercial and governmental economic cost was between $7 and $18 billion, according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme.
Many areas in the world are still at risk of Zika virus infection and expectant mothers remain the population most at-risk for complications from the virus. What will happen to the Zika virus in the long term is still unknown. But for now, expectant parents will still need to keep Zika in mind when they are planning their next babymoon.
What can be done to mitigate the risk?
Individuals can reduce their risk by understanding when and where the Zika virus is circulating. Local Zika virus transmission data can be found on the US Centers for Disease Control and European Centre for Disease Prevention Control websites. Locations, even within the same country, can have very different risk based on the abundance of the Zika mosquito and amount of recent local Zika virus transmission.
Travellers can reduce their risk with some advance planning, including visiting their doctor or local travel health clinic. Travel insurance may also be an option, depending on the company policy. Mosquito bites can be avoided by using mosquito repellents, covering up, eliminating standing water, and staying in air-conditioned and window-screened rooms.
Tourist-dependent companies including airlines and hotels can mitigate the risk by implementing preparedness and response measures. This can include recommending ways to prevent mosquito bites and education to clientele and employees. By educating customers about their risk, how to keep safe, and recommending alternative locations in their holdings, it is possible to help retain bookings that would otherwise be lost. ■