There have been four confirmed cases of Zika virus in Canada – two people in British Columbia, one in Alberta and a newly diagnosed case in Quebec, Canada’s chief public health officer said Friday.
But Dr. Gregory Taylor says the risk of the mosquito-borne virus to Canadians is “very, very low.”
All four cases involved Canadians who travelled to countries where the virus is actively circulating. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization said Zika virus will touch all of the Americas, except for Canada and Chile.
“Although it is possible that persons travelling abroad may contract the virus and return to Canada, the Zika virus does not present a significant public health risk to Canadians,” Taylor said at a media briefing about the disease that’s rapidly spreading through Latin America.
“The mosquitoes known to transmit the virus are not established in Canada and are not well suited to our climate. For this reason the risk of Zika virus infection in Canada is considered very low,” he explained.
He said health officials are collaborating with provincial and global counterparts to develop guidelines for identifying and managing suspected Zika virus infections.
Of the two cases of Zika virus in Alberta, one person was diagnosed in 2013 after travelling through Southeast Asia. Alberta health officials wouldn’t provide a gender or age for that patient.
The other case involved a woman who returned to Alberta in late 2015 after travelling in Colombia.
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The Public Health Agency of Canada already confirmed that a B.C. resident who travelled to El Salvador contracted the virus.
By Friday, Quebec health officials confirmed the province’s first case.
There hasn’t been a single reported case of locally acquired Zika virus in Canada.
While experts say the disease can’t be passed from person-to-person, scientists are still trying to understand its potential spread from mother to baby.
Health officials in El Salvador, Brazil, Jamaica, Ecuador, Honduras and Colombia told residents to stave off pregnancy until doctors better understand if the infection tampers with brain development in infants. So far, it’s been linked to a 20-fold increase in a rare defect called microcephaly in babies, in which the newborns are born with irregularly small heads and underdeveloped brains.
“It’s an association of microcephaly. It’s an association that hasn’t been proven yet,” Taylor reminded Canadians.
“We don’t know what the real risk is,” he said.
Scientists have also gathered preliminary research on the potential spread of Zika virus through sexual intercourse or blood transfusions.
The Canadian experts told reporters that the virus has been detected in semen for up to two weeks, for example.
“There is only really one published case study of a male traveller who had been to Africa, who came back, and subsequently his wife developed Zika virus infection without travel,” Dr. Theresa Tam, of the Public Health Agency of Canada, said.
She said Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg is relying on genetic techniques and sequencing to test for the virus but it’s also developing capabilities to look at how to generate antibodies after infection. Scientists are collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to develop a vaccine.
In French Polynesia, where an outbreak is ongoing, three per cent of asymptomatic blood donors had the virus. By Thursday, Canadian Blood Services said it would turn away donors who have travelled to countries where Zika is present.
WATCH: Four cases of Zika virus have been confirmed in Canada with all the victims contracting the virus outside the country. As Lisa MacGregor report, it’s prompting some in Calgary to cancel their vacations.
Like dengue, West Nile and yellow fever, Zika virus is a mosquito-borne tropical disease, meaning mosquitoes transmit the disease to humans.
“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,” the PHAC advisory says.
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