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Zika virus prompts travel warning for Kiwis

Sunday 24 Jan 2016 6:05 p.m.

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There is a warning over the Zika virus, causing serious and long-term damage to thousands of babies.

New Zealand women who are pregnant or wanting to conceive are being advised not to travel to 23 countries affected by the virus, including Samoa.

The Zika virus is catching authorities all over the world off-guard and unprepared.

It's transmitted by mosquitos and is now in 23 countries, the most recent and close to home being Samoa.

While the symptoms of Zika may not seem severe, the effects on pregnant women can be devastating.

"Zika virus appears to have a particular ability to cause birth defects when the baby is born to a mother that was infected during pregnancy," says Dr Eduardo Espinoza El Salvador.

Those defects include babies born with unusually small heads and severe learning difficulties.

In Brazil alone nearly 4000 babies have been born with it since October. It has forced health officials in Central America to urge women not to get pregnant for two years, or until the outbreak is under control.

Three Britons have also tested positive after travelling to affected areas, leaving the UK on high alert too.

"For the sake of safety we have to say women that are in the pre-conception phase, just before they get pregnant, and then through all stages of the pregnancy will need to be aware of catching Zika virus," says Dr Derek Gatherer of the University of Lancaster.

The New Zealand Government has followed Britain's lead. Official advice recommends any women who are pregnant or plan to conceive in the near future to delay travel to countries affected with the Zika virus. Travel agents are also making customers aware of the situation.

While that may seem dramatic, given a lack of information about Zika, and a lack of vaccination, it's the best advice.

"We might speculate that it's around the time that the brain is developing because that's the affected tissue in microcephaly, but really at the moment we can't be as sure about that because we have no data," says Dr Gatherer.

Scientists say a vaccine could take two years to develop, so right now the focus is on prevention rather than cure.

Countries with a travel warning:

  • Barbados
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Cape Verde
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • El Salvador
  • French Guiana
  • Guadeloupe
  • Guatemala
  • Guyana
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Martinique
  • Mexico
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Puerto Rico
  • Saint Martin
  • Samoa
  • Suriname
  • Venezuela

The UK is also affected, but cases there are isolated and there is not a travel warning at this time.

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