Canadian travellers: paralyzing disorder cases spike in Zika affected countries

The World Health Organization announced nine countries are reporting increased cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome.
The World Health Organization announced nine countries are reporting increased cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ AP/James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP

As the Zika virus continues to spread to new countries, the cases of paralyzing Guillain-Barre syndrome are also spiking, reports the World Health Organization.

Nine countries have now reported increasing cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) in people of all ages, said WHO officials.

GBS is a rare condition that can lead to progressive paralysis that can take months or even years to recover from. In some cases it can even lead to death. Symptoms can include weakness and numbness in arms and legs, and in some patients it can cause severe symptoms like difficulty swallowing and breathing.

GBS can develop or follow a variety of viral infections. Despite new research health officials will not confirm a direct link between the mosquito-borne Zika virus and GBS, but the WHO admits the evidence is mounting.

Zika virus: New concerns about paralyzing disorder

“That evidence is not yet in a form that can lead to a conclusion that there is a cause-effect relationship between Zika and microcephaly and Guillain-Barre. But there is so much evidence coming in now, and this evidence is all pointing in the same direction,” said Dr. David Heymann, chair of the WHO’s emergency committee.

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The GBS-CIDP Foundation International, a non-profit organization, believes “the relationship between Zika virus infection and a very large increase in GBS cases is clear.”

The foundation also believes health officials must be ready for an increase in cases of GBS.

“We are concerned that without forewarning, our health systems will be overwhelmed,” the foundation states.

READ MORE: WHO: Sexual transmission of Zika more common than thought

“In retrospect, it’s not too much of a surprise that there should be this association between Zika virus infection and Guillain-Barre syndrome, because we know that in fact many, many different viruses can trigger Guillain-Barre syndrome, not just Zika virus,” Dr. Andrew Simor told Global News.

Simor, an infectious disease specialist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said it’s still not known what the risk of GBS is in Zika-infected patients, meaning not everyone who is ill with Zika will develop GBS.

“We don’t know what proportion are going to go on to develop Guillain-Barre syndrome, it’s likely still a very small, small proportion, so I am not sure this should influence travel plans,” said Simor.

He does advise travellers going to Zika-impacted countries to do everything they can to reduce the risk of mosquito bite infections.

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