Colombia’s health authorities recently advised all women in the country not to get pregnant until July 2016. It seems rather draconian, but there is some sense behind it.
The country is currently in the midst of an epidemic of the Zika virus, with over 300 recorded cases nationwide. The virus, which is transmitted by daytime-active mosquitoes, produces a fever which is currently untreatable by vaccine of preventative drug. Recent research has also suggested that the virus can be sexually transmitted and that fetal infection is possible, with potential risks for newborn babies including the birth defect microcephaly, which can lead to a child’s head being much smaller than is normal, and can lead to hearing and vision problems or seizures. It has also been linked to isolated paralysis in some adult cases.
How exactly the disease can be passed from mother to baby remains unclear – the Panamerican Health Organisation described the information surrounding this as “very limited”, stating studies into the issue are ongoing, more specifically injecting animals and cell matter with the live virus in order to gain more understanding into how it is transmitted from person to person. If a potential vaccine is developed, human volunteers could soon also be injected with the virus to test their effectiveness against it.
Colombia’s Health and Social Security Minister, Alejandro Gaviria, issued the country’s preventative advice. He also warned all women in the gestation period not to travel to any part of the country more than 2,200 metres above sea level (not made easy by the mountainous terrain common in most regions), and to make use of mosquito repellent, as well as avoiding drinking water collected from stills.
The virus has now spread to other Latin American countries including Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela and Mexico. Many have issued similar advice to pregnant women as the virus has spread across the world with cases reported in Florida and further afield including China and Canada. A number of countries have adopted preventative measures in addition to advising pregnant women to avoid high risk areas such as in Puerto Rico, where controls on the price of condoms have been announced under a state of emergency.
Potential worry over the disease could be an issue for the forthcoming Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, with the International Olympic Committee reportedly sceptical about safety after one woman contracted Zika less than two miles from the city’s Olympic Park. The director of the World Health Organisation, Margaret Chan, remained defiant, stating her belief that “Brazil will win” over the potential risks of Zika, but with the number of cases spreading across the world and no viable vaccination in sight it remains to be seen whether this will be the case.