The mosquito-borne Zika virus linked to birth defects in the Americas will probably spread in Europe in the next three to four months, though the risk of an outbreak in people varies by region, the World Health Organisation said.
There is a low-to-moderate chance of a Zika virus outbreak in Europe during late northern spring and summer, the WHO's Regional Office for Europe in Copenhagen said today. Two-thirds of the countries in the region have a low, very low or no likelihood of local virus transmission, the WHO office said. In most of the rest of Europe, the risk is moderate.
The chances are higher in a few areas where the mosquitoes that spread the virus are present in significant numbers, with the greatest risk on the north-eastern coast of the Black Sea and the Portuguese island of Madeira.
Almost four years ago, Madeira was the scene of the first sustained outbreak of dengue in Europe since the 1920s. Dengue and Zika virus are spread by the same type of mosquito.
"We call particularly on countries at higher risk to strengthen their national capacities and prioritise the activities that will prevent a large Zika outbreak," said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO's Regional Director for Europe, in the statement.
The Zika virus is spreading rapidly through the Americas. It's been determined to be the cause of a jump in the number of babies born with an alarming birth defect and is suspected in an increase in cases of a rare neurological disorder. The virus doesn't cause serious illness in most infected people, who may experience mild flu-like symptoms.
In the absence of a vaccine, which could take a decade to develop, or drug treatment, the focus has been on controlling the mosquitoes who spread the virus. Warm temperatures provide mosquitoes a conducive climate for breeding.