Health authorities across South America and the Caribbean are on alert over the spread of Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that may be linked to congenital brain deformity.
The disease, which is similar to dengue fever and is spread by Aedes mosquitoes, was identified on Easter Island in the Pacific in February last year and has spread to Brazil and Colombia. The symptoms are usually mild, but doctors in Brazil are investigating links between the virus and a sudden rise in the number of babies born with microcephaly, or underdeveloped brains and skulls.
The Brazilian health ministry has confirmed almost 400 cases of newborns with abnormally small heads in the north-east of the country. The majority were in the state of Pernambuco, where the number rose from an annual average of 10 to 268.
Although the cause of the increase has not yet been established, Fiocruz, a Brazilian scientific institute, said that the Zika virus had been found in the amniotic fluid of two pregnant women whose foetuses had been diagnosed with microcephaly.
Dr Kleber Luz, an infectologist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, said around 80pc of the mothers whose babies had microcephaly in the state of Rio Grande do Norte also had symptoms compatible with Zika in their first trimester.
Last week, Brazil declared a nationwide public health emergency to investigate the causes of the rise in cases of microcephaly. It advised women in the north-east who planned to get pregnant to talk to doctors.
“It is very important that in every state, notifications of cases are made so they can be monitored,” said Claudio Maierovitch, director of the department for infectious disease surveillance.
“For pregnant women, it is important to follow antenatal routines and not take any medication without guidance.”
The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), part of the World Health Organisation, has issued an epidemiological alert for governments in the region to report any similar increase.
“Any increase of microcephaly or other neurological congenital disorder must be assessed and investigated,” it said.
A PAHO report last month also advised health authorities to prepare for “a potential additional burden at all levels of healthcare” as a result of the spread of Zika.
Following the PAHO alert, Ecuador ordered an immediate investigation into suspected cases of Zika, and reports in Jamaica claimed doctors had already treated cases of the illness.