Zika virus spreads from South America to doorstep of Africa
Published 20/05/2016 | 15:01
The Zika virus that is believed to have infected more than 7,500 people in an island nation off the western coast of Africa is the same strain spreading through the Americas, the World Health Organisation has said.
As a result, three babies in Cape Verde have already developed microcephaly - the same devastating condition that has left babies in Brazil and elsewhere with undersized brains and skulls.
Zika's emergence near Africa raises new concerns because many of the nearby countries on the continent have very poor health infrastructure, as was laid bare by the Ebola epidemic that ravished Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said: "The findings are of concern because it is further proof that the outbreak is spreading beyond South America and is on the doorstep of Africa."
Cape Verde, which reported its first Zika case in October, is a former Portuguese colony like Brazil, where the mosquito-borne virus emerged last year before spreading to nearly 60 countries. There have already been more than 7,500 suspected cases of the Zika virus in Cape Verde.
Most infected people suffer no symptoms but authorities in Brazil have seen a dramatic increase in severe brain-related birth defects in babies born to women infected with Zika during pregnancy. After studying evidence, health officials this year concluded Zika causes such birth defects.
One of the babies believed to have contracted Zika in Cape Verde was born at a hospital in Boston, officials said.
WHO said that health officials in the region should start warning pregnant women to take precautions against mosquito bites. Zika can also be spread sexually, and WHO has said that pregnant women should abstain from sex or practice safe sex with anyone who has recently returned from areas with outbreaks.
Doctors also believe Zika can cause a rare paralysing condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which leads to rapid muscle weakness caused by the immune system damaging the peripheral nervous system.