NEW YORK — Pregnant women should avoid travelling to Latin America and Caribbean countries that have outbreaks of a tropical illness linked to birth defects, health officials said Friday.
The illness is caused by the Zika virus which is spread through mosquito bites. It causes only a mild illness in most people. But it’s been spreading around the world, and there’s mounting evidence linking it to a terrible birth defect, especially in Brazil.
On Friday, U.S. health officials said pregnant women should consider postponing trips to 14 places – Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Suriname and Venezuela.
WHAT IS ZIKA?
Zika (ZEE’-ka) is the name of a virus discovered in a monkey in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947. It is native to tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. But infections have exploded recently in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is spread through bites from the same kind of mosquitoes that can spread other tropical diseases, like chikungunya and dengue fever.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Experts think that only about 1 in 5 people who are infected with the Zika virus develop any symptoms. For those that do, Zika illness usually involves fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes – which usually last no more than a week. There is no medicine or vaccine for it. Hospitalizations are rare, and deaths from Zika have not been reported.
WHY IS IT A CONCERN NOW?
Two reasons. First, there’s been growing evidence linking Zika infection in pregnant women to a rare condition called microcephaly, in which the head is smaller than normal and the brain has not developed properly. U.S. health officials are heading to Brazil, where there’s been a recent spike in the birth defect, to further study the actual risk to pregnant women.
Second, the threat seems to be moving closer. Infections are occurring in our southern neighbour, Mexico, and the kind of mosquitoes that can carry the virus are found along the southern United States, too. Experts think it’s likely the pests may end up spreading the virus here, though probably on a smaller scale than what’s been seen in the tropics.
HAVE THERE BEEN CASES IN THE US?
About 20 Americans have been diagnosed with Zika since 2007, all of them travellers who are believed to have caught it overseas. In addition, a person in Puerto Rico who had not travelled was diagnosed with the illness last month.
WHAT’S THE ADVICE?
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection advised U.S. travellers to protect themselves against mosquito bites if they visit places in Latin America or the Caribbean where Zika has been spreading. The advice includes wearing long sleeves and long pants and using insect repellent.
On Friday, the CDC came out with an alert asking pregnant women – at any stage of pregnancy -to postpone travel to 14 destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
There’s another travel alert for pregnant women already in place, discouraging travel to areas where malaria is spreading.