Health officials in Colombia are following the footsteps of their Brazilian counterparts after a surge in the number of cases of Zika virus in the country, a disease similar to Dengue fever that has been linked to severe birth defects in pregnant patients.
“It is recommended that women postpone — to the extent possible — the decision to become pregnant until the country can move out of the epidemic phase of the Zika virus,” the Health Ministry of Colombia advised in a statement in early January. As the Southern Hemisphere reaches the health of summer 2016, Colombian officials are estimating that doctors may diagnose up to 700,000 cases of Zika virus infection this year. The numbers are no different for the mosquito carrying the disease from the last summer, explains Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria: “We expect an expansion similar to what we had with the chikungunya virus last year, to finish with between 600,000 to 700,000 cases.”
Currently, Colombia has documented more than 13,500 cases of Zika, according to Reuters, the most of any country except Brazil. Among those are 560 pregnant women, whose children are the most at risk.
Zika virus is transmitted through the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spread chikungunya, Dengue fever, and yellow fever. The disease itself, when contaminating adults, is not considered grave: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that no adult is known to have died from Zika, and that its symptoms are similar to Dengue, but milder.
The virus has profoundly damaging effects on in utero fetuses, however, which are not yet fully understood. Brazilian health officials have documented that nearly 4,000 infants born of mothers carrying Zika have microcephaly, a condition in which the skull is smaller than the brain, causing significant cognitive defects and, sometimes, death. At least five children have been confirmed dead of microcephaly after being born of mothers carrying Zika in Brazil.