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Colombia says the Zika epidemic is over — but birth defects have yet to peak

The country's health authorities say the population must nevertheless continue protecting itself against contracting the virus that “is here to stay.”

by Alan Hernandez
Jul 26 2016, 6:20pm

Mosquito Aedes aegypti, propagadores de la epidemia, a través del microscopio en el Instituto Nacional de Salud en Bogotá, Colombia. Imagen por Fernando Vergara/AP Photo

Colombia is expecting a rise in the number of babies born with microcephaly because their mothers contracted the Zika virus, but the health authorities insist the epidemic of the mosquito-borne disease is now over.

Deputy Health Minister Fernando Ruiz told a press conference on Monday that the virus has infected 100,000 people so far in the South American nation.

He said that 17,700 of these are pregnant women who require special monitoring because of the link between Zika and a developmental condition in newborns known as microcephaly and characterized by abnormally small heads.

"We think that the number of microcephaly births will reach a peak in August and September," Ruiz said, adding that the rise in the number of cases was already evident in July.

The Zika epidemic, and its link to microcephaly, were first noted in Brazil in October. Since then the virus has spread throughout the continent and beyond.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, there were 400 women with the virus distributed across 50 US states in mid July.

This week, the first case of a baby born with Zika-linked microcephaly in Europe was detected in Barcelona. The virus has also been associated with other congenital disabilities in newborns, spontaneous miscarriages, and the Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.

Zika — which is often asymptomatic but can cause aches, pains, and a relatively mild fever — is most commonly spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. There is also evidence of some infections caused by sexual contact.

Ruiz said that the epidemic "progressed very rapidly" in Colombia which meant that it had "less impact." He said that while there were 6,300 new infections detected in the first week of February, there were just 600 news cases registered in the first week of July.

He urged people who live below 2,200 meters — above which the Aegys aegypti mosquito struggles to survive — to continue protecting themselves against Zika with repellent and long sleeves.

"We are announcing the end of the Zika epidemic in Colombia but the virus is obviously still circulating," Ruiz said. "The virus is here to stay."

Related: Telling Women in Zika-Affected Countries to Not Get Pregnant Is Unfair, UN Points Out

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten