Brazil is dealing with pandemic levels of Zika virus as scientists try to figure out if the disease is tied to neurological defects in babies. Now, health officials have doled out travel warnings specifically to pregnant women.
On Friday night, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised pregnant women against travelling to Latin America and the Caribbean. Fourteen countries were included on the travel advisory, but health officials say the list is slated to grow.
“Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing,” Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of mosquito-borne diseases at the CDC said.
“We do not know exactly what is the biggest period of risk during a woman’s pregnancy. That’s one of the things we want to find out… This is a new situation. It’s a dynamic situation. I think we’re just going to have to wait to see how this all plays out,” Petersen said.
This is the first time the department advised pregnant women not to travel to a specific region during an outbreak. It sits at an Alert Level 2 – of three warning levels – and advises Americans to practice enhanced precautions.
Watch below: The Zika virus is making its way through more than a dozen countries, such as Puerto Rico and Mexico. The virus is spread through the bite of a mosquito. Health officials say its inching closer to North America.
Right now, the list of affected countries include: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
Canadian researchers project that Zika could make its way into Florida, Southern Texas, Mexico and the Caribbean – all popular vacation destinations for winter-weary Canucks.
Two cases of Zika have been confirmed in Alberta–one in 2013 and one in 2015. Both Albertans were infected outside of Canada.
“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.
On Monday, Jamaica’s health minister warned women to delay plans to become pregnant for the next six to 12 months, too. The island hasn’t even recorded any cases of Zika. Health officials on the tiny Caribbean island say it’s just a matter of time before the virus hits the island.
Like Dengue, West Nile and Yellow fever, Zika virus is a mosquito-borne tropical disease, meaning they transmit the disease to humans.
“Mosquitoes are the perfect vector. They normally don’t suffer from having the virus in them and they are blood transfusers,” Canadian microbiologist, Jason Tetro, explains.
In short, mosquitoes draw blood from the infected animal then re-inject the blood – with the virus in tow – into others at their next meal.
Zika virus first appeared in Brazil in May 2015. Months later, health officials noted a rise in birth defects in the country.
By Wednesday, the CDC said it found the strongest evidence so far tying the virus to a rare condition known as microcephaly, in which babies are born with irregularly small heads and underdeveloped brains.
In two samples from two pregnancies that ended in miscarriage and two cases of diagnosed microcephaly in two infants who died, the babies tested positive for Zika virus infection. All four mothers reported a fever and rash consistent with the virus’ symptoms.
“What we’re seeing in babies is a destruction of brain tissue that was…a brain that was already forming. That can happen in the first trimester, it can also happen in the second trimester,” Dr. Cynthia Moore told reporters at a CDC press conference.
She said that microcephaly can also be caused by genetics, or environmental causes, such as alcohol exposure during pregnancy. In these cases, the women were exposed to Zika virus during their first trimester, but that evidence suggests the risk continues into the second trimester.
There’s been a 20-fold increase in the number of babies born with this typically rare condition. Zika is suspected of causing more than 3,500 babies to be born with microcephaly in Brazil.
“We have to take an abundance of caution now to ensure we have a better understanding of what the relationship is and in the meantime protect women who are pregnant or may become pregnant,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a tropical infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital and the University of Toronto, told Global News.
He’s part of the team that suggested, in new research published Thursday, that Zika virus could turn up in North America because of global travel.
If you’re travelling to affected regions, health officials recommend that you consult with your health-care provider six weeks before you travel.
To protect against bug bites, they say you should cover up with light-coloured, long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Insect repellant and bed nets, also treated with insecticide, are also recommended.
Read more about safety precautions here.
-With files from the Associated Press and Global’s Su-Ling Goh