Zika Virus: 4 Things Pregnant Canadians Need To Know

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Since Zika virus started gaining worldwide attention last year, it has spread to more than 23 countries in the Americas according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The organization's director-general Margaret Chan has even said the virus "is now spreading explosively."

The majority of those infected don't experience any symptoms (mild fever, rash and red eyes). But authorities are still issuing warnings, mostly targeted at women who are pregnant or are planning to get pregnant. This is because of the possible link to birth defects in babies.

So what does all this mean for Canadian women? Here are four facts all pregnant women need to know.

1. The virus is spread by a type of mosquito that isn't here.

Zika virus is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito. The type of mosquito that carries Zika is called Aedes aegypti, and it is not in Canada. According to Alberta Health, our climate doesn't suit this particular mosquito.

But there are Canadians with Zika.

"I believe, if I'm not mistaken, that there are three cases in Canadians who have travelled to affected countries that have come back with documented cases of Zika virus," said Health Minister Jane Philpott on Wednesday. Two of those cases are in B.C. and the third is in Alberta.

The WHO says Canada and Chile are the only two countries in the Americas where Zika is unlikely to spread.

2. Whether Zika causes birth defects is under investigation.

One of the main concerns surrounding Zika is the possible link to birth defects.

"In Brazil, there has recently been a significant increase in number of babies born with birth defects (congenital malformations), such as infants born with an abnormally small head and microcephaly (an underdeveloped brain)," the Public Health Agency of Canada states on its website. "The Ministry of Health of Brazil recently identified a possible relationship between Zika virus infection and the increase in the number of microcephaly cases."

Officials have found 4,180 suspected cases of microcephaly in babies in Brazil since late October (only 270 have been confirmed). This is much more than the number of cases reported in an average year. The worst-hit area is the state of Pernambuca.

According to the WHO, it will take another six to nine months to confirm if Zika is causing the birth defects.

While health organizations agree that a definitive link hasn't yet been made, they still recommend pregnant women (and women thinking of becoming pregnant) take precautions when travelling to regions with the virus.

In El Salvador and Colombia, the governments have even issued an advisory for women in their countries to delay getting pregnant for up to two years.

3. The countries with Zika include popular Canadian destinations.

The Canadian government has issued the following warning to women planning to travel to countries where Zika virus is prevalent:

"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. If travel cannot be postponed then strict mosquito bite prevention measures should be followed to protect themselves against bites."

Those who fit this description, should see their doctor at least six weeks before travel.

zika facts

Of the top countries visited by Canadians, Mexico ranks second and the Dominican is number six, according to Stats Canada. And both have cases of Zika circulating. In Mexico, for example, there are 18 cases of Zika, in the regions of Chiapas, Nuevo Leon and Jalisco.

For anyone wanting to change travel plans, three Canadian airlines are allowing cancellations and rescheduling due to concerns over Zika.

“The world we live in is very interconnected now,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a tropical infectious disease specialist in Toronto, told the Star. “Things don’t happen in isolation anymore. Infections from the farthest corners of the world can quickly arrive on our doorstep.”

4. There is no vaccine -- yet.

But countries are working on it, and we're about a year away from having one.

"In the area of vaccines, I do know that there has been some work done by some groups looking at the feasibility of a Zika virus vaccine," says the WHO's assistant director Bruce Aylward. "Now something like that, as people know, is going to be a 12-month-plus time frame."

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