PREGNANT women have been warned off travelling to the Americas as Rio Carnival and Olympics organisers in Brazil scramble to combat the devastating Zika virus outbreak.
The mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is suspected of causing birth defects including small heads and brain damage to babies in Brazil, is likely to spread to all countries in the Americas except for Canada and Chile, the World Health Organisation said on Monday.
The virus has not yet been reported in the US, although a woman who fell ill with the virus in Brazil later gave birth to a brain-damaged baby in Hawaii.
Pregnant women are being urged to reconsider trips to countries affected by the virus as Australian authorities expand their list of places of concern.
WARNING FOR AUSTRALIAN TRAVELLERS
The Department of Foreign Affairs has released an updated list of 22 countries where the Zika virus is transmitted, including nations in the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Africa and the Pacific Islands.
The updated list no longer includes the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and the Cook Islands.
DFAT has advised pregnant woman to “consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing”.
“Recent outbreaks in Central and South America, particularly Brazil, have raised concerns that infection with Zika virus in pregnant women might cause certain birth defects,” DFAT said on its Smartraveller website.
It warned travellers to take measures to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes and advised them to be aware of transmission in nearby countries.
“Areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing are difficult to determine and likely to change over time,” the statement read.
Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also known to carry dengue and yellow fevers and Chikungunya viruses.
ZIKA’S POTENTIAL IMPACT ON CARNIVAL
The warning comes as more than 3000 health inspectors in Rio de Janeiro step up inspections for mosquito breeding areas near the city’s Carnival sites as part of a bid to stem the spread of Zika, city hall said in a statement sent on Monday.
Municipal officials said inspectors would also begin spraying insecticide around Sambadrome, the outdoor grounds where thousands of dancers and musicians will parade during the city’s Carnival celebrations from February 5-10. Rio’s world-famous Carnival celebrations every year attract hundreds of thousands of visitors from around Brazil and the globe.
OLYMPIC VENUES BEING INSPECTED
Inspectors will also increase their efforts to remove the stagnant waters around the city’s Olympic venues to prevent the spread of Zika’s vector, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the statement said.
It added that because the August 5-21 Olympic Games coincide with the dry season, the mosquito threat is expected to be lower then.
There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika, which typically causes mild fevers and rashes, although about 80 per cent of those infected show no symptoms.
Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is concluding feasibility studies evaluating whether its vaccine technology is suitable for the Zika virus.
Glaxo spokeswoman Anna Padula said in an email to Reuters: “We’re concluding our feasibility studies as quickly as we can to see if our vaccine technology platforms might be suitable for working on Zika.”
She declined to provide details but added vaccine development typically takes 10 to 15 years.
France’s Sanofi SA, which won approval late last year for the first dengue vaccine, said it was reviewing the possibility of applying its technology for Zika.
FACTS ABOUT THE VIRUS
WHAT IS ZIKA?
A rare tropical disease that is spreading in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. The mosquito-borne Zika virus usually causes a mild illness but is now suspected in an unusual number of birth defects and possibly other health issues.
WHEN WAS IT DISCOVERED?
The Zika virus was first discovered in monkeys in Uganda in 1947; its name comes from the Zika forest where it was first discovered. It is native mainly to tropical Africa, with outbreaks in Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. It showed up in Brazil last year and has since been seen in many Latin American countries and Caribbean islands.
HOW IS IT SPREAD?
It is transmitted through bites from the same kind of mosquitoes that can spread other tropical diseases, like dengue fever, chikungunya and yellow fever. It is not known to spread from person to person so it’s not infectious like other germs such as the flu virus. The World Health Organisation said it is rapidly spreading in the Americas because it is new to the region, people aren’t immune to it, and the mosquito that carries it is just about everywhere — including along the southern United States. Canada and Chile are the only places without this mosquito.
ARE THERE SYMPTOMS?
Experts think most people infected with Zika virus don’t get sick. And those that do usually develop mild symptoms — fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes — which usually last no more than a week. There is no specific medicine and there hasn’t been a vaccine developed for it, which is the case for some other tropical illnesses that cause periodic outbreaks.
WHY IS IT A CONCERN NOW?
In Brazil, there’s been mounting evidence linking Zika infection in pregnant women to a rare birth defect called microcephaly, in which a newborn’s head is smaller than normal and the brain may not have developed properly. Brazilian health officials last October noticed a spike in cases of microcephaly in tandem with the Zika outbreak. The connection to Zika is still being investigated, and officials note there are many causes of the condition. Nearly 4000 cases have been tallied.
CAN THE SPREAD BE STOPPED?
Individuals can protect themselves from mosquito bites by using insect repellents, and wearing long sleeves and long pants — especially during daylight, when the mosquitoes tend to be most active, health officials say. Eliminating breeding spots and controlling mosquito populations can help prevent the spread of the virus.
HAVE THERE BEEN CASES IN THE USA?
Yes, but in travellers. There’ve been more than two dozen cases diagnosed in the US since 2007, all travellers who are believed to have caught it overseas. (Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands have each had a recent case that didn’t involve a traveller).
The kind of mosquito that spreads Zika is found along the southern US, so experts think it’s likely the pests may end up spreading the virus there. But officials also have said Zika infections probably won’t be a big problem in the US for a number of reasons, including the more common use of air conditioning and door and window screens. Recent US outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya — carried by the same mosquito — suggest any Zika outbreaks may be relatively small, said Dr. Lyle Petersen of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
ARE THERE ANY TRAVEL ADVISORIES?
US health officials recommend that pregnant women should consider postponing trips to 22 destinations. In Latin America: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela. In the Caribbean: Barbados, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, St. Martin and Puerto Rico. Also, Cape Verde, off the coast of western Africa; and Samoa in the South Pacific.
In Brazil, most of the mothers who had babies with microcephaly were apparently infected during the first trimester, but there is some evidence the birth defect can occur later in the pregnancy, CDC officials say. The travel alert applies to women in any stage of pregnancy.