Women who are pregnant are being advised not to travel to tropical countries in the Americas as the World Health Organization (WHO) holds emergency meetings to try to find ways to stop the transmission of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
The virus, which only came to the attention of the WHO last year, is “spreading explosively” across the South and Central Americas and has recently been linked to significant birth defects in babies whose mothers were bitten by mosquitos carrying the virus during pregnancy.
“The level of alarm is extremely high, as is the level of uncertainty. Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly,” said Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO.
Public health officials suspect there is a link between the virus and a rare brain defect called microcephaly in infants, as well as a nervous system syndrome known as Guillain-Barré that can lead to paralysis.
The WHO said the pathogen is spreading so fast it could infect as many as three to four million people within 12 months.
Those numbers, coupled with the severity of possible health outcomes — from brain defects in children to paralysis in adults — make the situation urgent.
Brazil, which is preparing to host the world for the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games in six short months, is the epicentre of the crisis, where the country is dealing with more than 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly in newborns linked to the Zika virus.
In a press release issued last Thursday by SFU, Carl Lowenberger, a professor of entomology and parasitology and expert in mosquito-borne diseases, cautions that the Zika virus is a significant threat and impossible to completely avoid if travelling to Mexico, the Caribbean and South and Central America.
As a precaution, travel agencies are strongly recommending that women not travel to these affected areas while pregnant as the risk is just too great.