NZ raises zika virus threat levels as pregnant Kiwi women advised to avoid South America

A health official sprays for Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Rio de Janeiro. Photo / Getty Images
A health official sprays for Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Rio de Janeiro. Photo / Getty Images

Pregnant Kiwi women are being advised to avoid countries where the zika virus is present.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is now warning those who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant soon to consider delaying travel to affected countries, including Samoa.

Concerns are mounting that pregnant women infected with zika virus can transmit the disease to their unborn babies, potentially causing birth defects.


In Brazil, the virus has been linked with an increase in reported cases of microcephaly, in which babies are born with unusually small heads.

Those travelling in zika-infected areas are advised to take medical advice and all precautions possible to avoid mosquito bites including:

• Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants
• Using insect repellents containing Deet, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus
• Wear permethrin-treated clothing and gear
• Sleep under bed nets
• Stay and sleep in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms

It has been reported that there have been as many as 42 zika cases in New Zealand over the past 24 months. Those affected have carried the virus into the country from surrounding Pacific nations.

Researchers have linked microcephaly, a neurological disorder where infants were born with smaller craniums and brains, to the zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease first seen in Africa in 1947.

The Centers for Disease control and prevention has identified Brazil and 21 other countries in South America and Central America, including Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia, as being at risk from the virus.

Travel Doctor New Zealand managing director Wendy Penno told the Herald earlier this week: "From a pregnancy aspect, I wouldn't be entering an area that has zika or may get cases of zika."

She said the virus was spreading "so quickly" in Central and South America.

"It wouldn't surprise us if we start seeing cases in Argentina very shortly as people travelled from Argentina to Brazil over the Christmas period," she said.

Ms Penno said there wasn't a lot of information about the virus at this time as it was happening "so rapidly". However, if a pregnant woman contracted the infection it could be very serious.

A doctor at Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in Brazil examines a baby with microcephaly. Photo / Getty Images
A doctor at Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in Brazil examines a baby with microcephaly. Photo / Getty Images

"For pregnant people, it is very serious because it causes deformities in the baby's brain."

While Ms Penno said it was too soon to know whether pregnant women shouldn't travel to Brazil for the Olympics in August, the current rainy season was the "perfect time to get insect diseases".

"We always get insect-borne outbreaks at this time of year in South America," she said.

"This is the time of year where we will see insect-type issues."

By August, it was dry season in the south of Brazil, so the outbreak may have died down, however, there may still be cases close to the Equator where it rained frequently, she said.

She said if anyone had to travel to these areas, they should be "very, very good at wearing insect repellent".

What is Zika?

The Zika (ZEE'-ka) virus was first discovered in monkey in Uganda in 1947; its name comes from the Zika forest where it was first discovered. It is native mainly to tropical Africa, with outbreaks in Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. It showed up in Brazil last years and has since been seen in many Latin American countries and Caribbean islands.

How is it spread?

It is transmitted through bites from the same kind of mosquitoes that can spread other tropical diseases, like dengue fever, chikungunya and yellow fever. It is not known to spread from person to person so it's not infectious like other germs such as the flu virus. The World Health Organization says it is rapidly spreading in the Americas because it is new to the region, people aren't immune to it, and the mosquito that carries it is just about everywhere, including along the southern United States. Canada and Chile are the only places without this mosquito.

Are there symptoms?

Experts think most people infected with Zika virus don't get sick. And those that do usually develop mild symptoms "fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes" which usually last no more than a week. There is no specific medicine and there hasn't been a vaccine developed for it, which is the case for some other tropical illnesses that cause periodic outbreaks.

Why is it a concern now?

In Brazil, there's been mounting evidence linking Zika infection in pregnant women to a rare birth defect called microcephaly, in which a newborn's head is smaller than normal and the brain may not have developed properly. Brazilian health officials last October noticed a spike in cases of microcephaly in tandem with the Zika outbreak. The connection to Zika is still being investigated, and officials note there are many causes of the condition. Nearly 4,000 cases have been tallied.

Meanwhile, doctors have noted increased reports of a nerve condition called Guillain-Barre gee-YAHN-buh-RAY) that can cause paralysis. But the link to the Zika virus is not clear; other infections can spark the problem, including dengue fever.

Can the spread be stopped?

Individuals can protect themselves from mosquito bites by using insect repellents, and wearing long sleeves and long pants " especially during daylight, when the mosquitoes tend to be most active, health officials say. Eliminating breeding spots and controlling mosquito populations can help prevent the spread of the virus.

- NZ Herald

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