Brazil have deployed over 200,000 military troops to go ‘house to house’ in order to attempt to bring the Zika virus outbreak under control.
Zika-carrying mosquitoes have been blamed for causing a birth defect epidemic, rapidly spreading across the world. Soldiers will visit homes across Brazil offering advice and distributing leaflets.
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The government, under growing pressure to deal with the crisis, will also hand out repellent to at least 400,000 pregnant women on social welfare.
The virus has been linked to serious birth defects, including microcephaly, in which babies born to women infected during pregnancy have abnormally small heads. Concerns remain that the terrifying virus could become a global issue with Rio hosting the Olympics in the summer.
It comes as the World Health Organisation said that the virus, which is suspected causing horrific brain damage to babies, will spread throughout all countries in America except Chile and Canada.
‘Our investigation is on course to develop a better testing with respect to the prenatal transmission of the disease, and to better understand how the virus affects babies,’ said a spokesman for the organisation.
A surge in incidents across Latin America, notably in Brazil, has prompted the United States and other governments to warn pregnant women against traveling to the region – an alarming prospect for Brazil as it gears up to welcome the Olympics to Rio de Janeiro in August.
Cases of the virus have also been discovered in Europe – with three cases in Great Britain, four in Italy and two in Spain’s Catalonia region. The British travellers had picked up the disease after being bitten by mosquitoes while visiting Colombia, Suriname and Guyana.
All the cases so far discovered in Europe have been in people who recently returned from trips to Latin America or the Caribbean.
But experts now believe that the disease itself could potentially be spread within Italy by the Tiger Mosquito – which, although once native to Asia, is now widespread across southern Europe.
‘The disease could be carried by the Tiger Mosquito,’ Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at the University of Milan, told La Repubblica.
‘The infected patient was then bitten by a Tiger Mosquito, and the Chikungunya virus was spread to over 200 people.’
He continued: ‘We need to isolate infected people and ensure that if they have the disease they don’t leave their homes to try and ensure they don’t pass to disease to a Tiger Mosquito.
‘It’s like a fire: if you put it out straight away it’s no problem, if not it can become a huge blaze.’
Pregnant women have been warned not to travel to the 22 countries where the infection has been reported, which include nations in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Oceania – but this could cause havoc for the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
Unlike some other international health scares, the Zika virus is not spread person to person and people are only becoming infected after being bitten by mosquitoes. For most people who get infected, the flu-like symptoms will clear up in about a week.
But the specific threat to pregnant women and their foetuses, and the seeming impossibility of avoiding mosquitoes in tropical countries, has given this crisis extra gravity.
Brazil has recorded at least 3,893 microcephaly cases since an unusual spike in the rare condition was noticed in the country’s northeast in October. Previously an annual average of 160 cases was the norm.
And short of not getting pregnant, there is no foolproof method for avoiding risk.
Mr Castro said last week that the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries Zika and also dengue fever and the chikungunya virus, was gaining momentum.
Dr Dipti Patel, director at National Travel Health Network and Centre, warned: ‘All travellers, especially pregnant women going to the Americas, should ensure they seek travel health advice from their GP or a travel clinic well in advance of their trip.
‘We strongly advise all travellers to avoid mosquito bites and urge pregnant women to consider avoiding travel to areas where Zika outbreaks are currently reported.
‘If travel is unavoidable, or they live in areas where Zika is reported, they should take scrupulous insect bite avoidance measures both during daytime and nighttime hours.
‘Women who are planning to become pregnant should discuss their travel plans with their healthcare provider to assess the risk of infection with Zika and receive advice on mosquito bite avoidance measures.’
Dr Hilary Kirkbride, travel and migrant health expert at PHE, said: ‘The symptoms of Zika are similar to other mosquito-borne infections such as dengue, chikungunya and malaria so laboratory testing is essential for the correct diagnosis.
‘If you have recently returned from the Americas, including the Caribbean, and have a fever or flu-like illness, seek medical attention without delay to exclude malaria and mention your travel history.’
The Foreign Office advised Britons to seek advice before travelling anywhere where the virus has been reported in the last year ‘particularly if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant’.
Only a handful of Zika cases had ever been documented before 2013.
But scientists began sounding the alarm after multiple outbreaks were discovered in Pacific islands and south-east Asia.
It is thought the Zika virus – which was at first thought to be relatively innocuous – may have arrived in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup by visitors from French Polynesia, where an outbreak had just occurred.
Scientists estimate as many as 1.5 million people could now be infected in Brazil.
Colombia has the second highest infection rate, with more than 13,500 people infected with the virus and the disease could hit as many as 700,000, its health minister said.
The country’s health minister, Alejandro Gaviria, urged women to delay pregnancies for up to eight months.
He said: ‘We are doing this because I believe it’s a good way to communicate the risk, to tell people that there could be serious consequences.’
Similar warnings were issued in Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica.
However, women’s rights campaigners criticised the recommendations, saying women in the region often had little choice about becoming pregnant.
‘It’s incredibly naive for a government to ask women to postpone getting pregnant in a context such as Colombia, where more than 50% of pregnancies are unplanned and across the region where sexual violence is prevalent,’ said Monica Roa, a member of Women’s Link Worldwide group.