As the zika virus sweeps through Latin America, the advice for Kiwi women who are pregnant or planning to be is to hold off travelling to affected countries.

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.

A pregnant woman waits to be attended at the Maternal and Children's Hospital in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo / Getty Images
A pregnant woman waits to be attended at the Maternal and Children's Hospital in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo / Getty Images

Travel Doctor New Zealand managing director Wendy Penno has advised pregnant women not to travel to affected areas. "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.

"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".

"The zika virus are daytime bites so anyone travelling to the areas should be very careful and wear insect repellent."

Travellers should wear insect repellent containing 20 to 50 per cent DEET or 20 per cent Picaridin and treat their clothing in permethrin.

Anything above 50 per cent DEET could be corrosive to the skin and does not provide greater benefit, she said.

However Ms Penno said there is no concern for pregnant women in New Zealand.

"There is a remote possibility there could be a mosquito imported in NZ that could transmit the disease, but very unlikely."

Most of New Zealand was too cold, she said.

Australia had more of a chance as the climate was warmer all year round and they "had the right type of mosquitoes to transmit the disease".

Pregnant women were advised to consult a travel medicine specialist before heading to the affected areas.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said the ministry continued its usual approach of mosquito border surveillance, which included monitoring at international ports and airports and responses to mosquito interceptions if they occurred.

The ministry would continue to monitor World Health Organisation (WHO) investigations into international outbreaks of zika virus and would provide updated information.

Everything you need to know

• Zika virus is spread to people through mosquito bites.

• It is not found in New Zealand and outbreaks have been reported in Africa, Southeast Asia, Pacific Islands and most recently in Brazil.

• The most common symptoms of zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week.

• If infected by the zika virus, take medicines such as acetaminophen or paracetamol to reduce fever and pain and don't take aspirin or other non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs.

• There is no vaccination or medicine to treat the virus.

• A mother already infected with zika virus near the time of delivery can pass on the virus to her newborn around the time of birth, but this is rare.

• It is possible that zika virus could be passed from mother to foetus during pregnancy.