It’s “spreading explosively” and will touch every part of the Americas – except for Canada and Chile, global health officials warn. Latin American and Caribbean nations are urging women to postpone pregnancy for two years as scientists grapple with the largest Zika virus epidemic to date.
Should Canadians be worried about the mosquito-borne disease that’s tied to neurological defects in babies?
For now, experts say no. Like dengue, West Nile and yellow fever, Zika virus is a mosquito-borne tropical disease, meaning mosquitoes 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.
But it’s the day-biting Aedes Aegypti – and other types of Aedes mosquitoes – that carry and transmit the virus. This mosquito is known to every country in the Americas except for Canada and Chile. We don’t have the climate for this type of mosquito to thrive.
In the past, a B.C. resident who travelled to El Salvador contracted the virus. Another case surfaced in a patient who travelled to Thailand. There hasn’t been a single reported case of locally acquired Zika virus in Canada, PHAC says.
The disease can’t be passed from person-to-person either.
But remember, viruses are stealthy – they constantly tweak themselves to become more resilient in their environment.
“As far as we know, the mosquitoes in Canada can’t carry Zika. I fully expect Zika will make its way up north and if it can adapt to mosquitoes in Canada, there’s a good likelihood it will spread,” Tetro warns.
It wouldn’t be a first: West Nile virus and Lyme disease, as examples, weren’t common in Canada.
The World Health Organization said it’ll hold an emergency meeting on Monday to decide if the outbreak should be declared an international health emergency.
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.
“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.
His Canadian research published this month warned that Zika virus will make its way into Florida, southern Texas and Mexico.
There’s a silver-lining, he noted. As the virus migrates north, Canadian health officials can track changes in the virus or in the mosquitoes transmitting the disease.
“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.