A specialist fumigates a graveyard on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, to prevent the spread of Zika virus.
Fears that the Zika virus outbreak could be responsible for spreading a condition that causes paralysis in adults have been reported by the World Health Organisation as the US issued warnings against travel to 22 countries.
Pregnant women have been most affected by Zika as it has spread rapidly across Latin America and the Caribbean.
The mosquito-borne virus is being blamed for brain damage to babies in the womb. Its suspected links to microcephaly — a condition that results in brain defects in newborn babies, leaving them with abnormally small heads — has triggered panic in the affected regions.
GRAPHIC: Symptoms and countries affected
Nearly 4000 children have been born with defects since the virus was first reported in Brazil in May last year. It is one of four countries warning women to avoid getting pregnant until the epidemic is contained.
Scientists in the country, which will host the Olympics this August, believe it was brought into Brazil by French Polynesian football fans attending the 2014 World Cup.
Previous Zika outbreaks have not been linked to microcephaly, leading scientists to warn that the virus had mutated.
“This may be a new strain that’s travelling very quickly but we really don’t know,” said Albert Ko, a Yale University epidemiologist.
The WHO, the UN agency based in Geneva, raised the prospect of a wider public health crisis last week by confirming that experts from Brazil and El Salvador were investigating Zika’s links to a rise in cases of another rare condition, known as Guillain-Barre syndrome.
The potentially life-threatening GBS causes muscle weakness that begins in the legs and spreads to the arms and face. It can cause limb paralysis.
While most people recover in time, in the worst cases the muscles used for breathing become so weak that patients then require some sort of life support.
El Salvador, in Central America, which normally has an average of 169 GBS cases a year, recorded 46 cases and two deaths between December 1 and January 6.
The Salvadoran authorities also declared the first case of suspected Zika in November and have reported 3836 suspected cases occurring up to the end of December.
More than 4800km away, in Brazil, medical experts reported a near-simultaneous rise in cases of Zika and GBS.
Brazilian officials say they are convinced of a link. There is previous circumstantial evidence of a possible relationship between Zika and GBS. When the virus spread in French Polynesia in 2013, the country also recorded 42 cases of GBS, despite a normal average of fewer than five cases a year.
International health bodies were yesterday scrambling to establish a scientific link.
The spread of Zika has prompted warnings to pregnant women, issued by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, not to travel to 22 countries, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean. Affected countries include Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Venezuela and the popular holiday destinations of Barbados, Mexico and Martinique.
The CDC alarm sounded after a baby was born in Hawaii with microcephaly, the first case of a brain deformity possibly linked to the Zika virus in America.
The baby’s mother had contracted the virus while she was pregnant in Brazil last year.
Health officials in New York state announced on Friday that three people had tested positive for Zika. Cases have also been confirmed in Florida and Illinois.
Outside the US, the virus is reported to have reached as far as Taiwan, where one person has been diagnosed.
The Zika virus was first discovered in the 1940s in monkeys living in the jungles of Uganda, in central Africa, and then crossed the species barrier to be reported in humans in Nigeria in 1954.
For decades it remained rare, with a total of 14 cases in Africa and southeast Asia until 2007.
The virus appeared in the south Pacific in that year with outbreaks in the Cook Islands, Easter Island and Polynesia affecting thousands.
In Colombia, where 560 pregnant women have been infected, the Health Minister advised women to delay getting pregnant for six to eight months.
This led to criticism from women’s rights campaigners who said limited access to contraception and abortion left many vulnerable women unprotected.
Credit and thanks: The Sunday Times