WHO warns of Zika virus outbreak

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  • The World Health Organization has warned of an outbreak of the Zika virus across the Americas.

    The virus has been found in more than 20 countries in North America, South America, and the Caribbean.

    It causes an infection that includes mild fever, conjunctivitis and headache.

    There is no treatment or vaccine available yet for the virus.

    In 2015, Zika virus was reported for the first time in a number of countries in Central and South America, as well as in Mexico. Past outbreaks of Zika virus infection have been reported in Africa, Asia and the Oceanic Pacific region.

    There have been travel-related cases of Zika virus reported in Canada in returned travellers from countries where the virus is known to circulate. There have been no reported cases of locally acquired Zika virus in Canada.

    In Brazil, there has recently been a significant increase in number of babies born with birth defects (congenital malformations), such as infants born with an abnormally small head and microcephaly (an underdeveloped brain). The Ministry of Health of Brazil recently identified a possible relationship between Zika virus infection and the increase in the number of microcephaly cases. An investigation to better understand the relationship between Zika virus infection and increased risk for microcephaly is ongoing.

    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. If travel cannot be postponed then strict mosquito bite prevention measures should be followed to protect themselves against bites.

    The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends that all travellers protect themselves from mosquito bites when travelling to areas where Zika virus is circulating. There is no vaccine or medication that protects against Zika virus infection.

    Zika is transmitted by the bite of Aedes mosquitoes, which are found in all countries in the region except Canada and Chile.

    In a statement, The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the regional office of the WHO, said: “PAHO anticipates that Zika virus will continue to spread and will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found.”

    PAHO is advising people to protect themselves from the mosquitoes, which also spread dengue fever and chikungunya.

    It also confirmed the virus had been detected in semen and there was “one case of possible person-to-person sexual transmission” but further evidence was still needed.

    Around 80 percent of infections do not result in symptoms.

    But the biggest concern is the potential impact on babies developing in the womb. There have been around 3,500 reported cases of microcephaly – babies born with tiny brains – in Brazil alone since October.

    PAHO warned pregnant women to be “especially careful” and to see their doctor before and after visiting areas affected by the virus.

    It has been linked to thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brains and some countries have advised women not to get pregnant.

    The virus was first detected in 1947 in monkeys in Africa. There have since been small, short-lived outbreaks in people on the continent, parts of Asia and in the Pacific Islands.

    But it has spread on a massive scale in the Americas, where transmission was first detected in Brazil in May 2015.

    Large numbers of the mosquitoes which carry the virus and a lack of any natural immunity is thought to be helping the infection to spread rapidly.

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