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Latin America Responds to the Zika Virus With Soldiers, Repellent, and Pregnancy Warnings

Here’s what the region’s governments are doing about the the mosquito-borne virus as it spreads rapidly through the Americas, amid evidence suggesting it is linked to abnormal births Brazil.

by Gabriela Gorbea
Jan 29 2016, 10:50pm

Imagen por Sebastiao Moreira/EPA

Up until recently few people in Latin America had ever heard of the Zika virus. Now the mosquito-borne disease is prompting alarm around much of the region.

Concern over Zika began in November when Brazil's health authorities said they were investigating a possible link between the virus and a sudden spike in cases of babies born with abnormally small heads — a condition known as microcephaly.

Since then other Latin American countries have revealed that they have also detected the virus that appears to be spreading very rapidly through the continent. The virus is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito that also transmits Dengue Fever and Chikungunya and is widespread in the region at altitudes below 1,800 meters (5,900 feet).

So far no country other than Brazil has announced an uptick in the number of cases of microcephaly or other illnesses where a link has been posited, such as the nerve disorder Guillain-Barré.

Although measures taken and advice given has so far focused on how to contain the mosquito and avoid getting bitten, the US-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday that it has recorded two possible cases of Zika being transmitted through sex.

With the World Health Organization planning an emergency meeting to discuss the virus on Monday, here is an overview of the varied official responses in Latin America so far. 

Related: Here's What You Should Know About the Zika Virus

Brazil:

Whereas the yearly number of confirmed cases of microcephaly in Brazil usually hovers around 150, the national health authority said in a statement on Wednesday that it has so far confirmed 270 cases of the condition in the last three months, and that at least six of these appear to have a Zika link.

With Zika now a world concern, Brazilian officials have begun using the language of war as they step up measures designed to eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

On Tuesday Health Minister Marcelo Castro announced that 220,000 soldiers are being deployed in high risk areas to help people eliminate mosquito breeding grounds — a battle that he said Brazil had been "losing."

His statements were immediately countered by President Dilma Rousseff who tweeted that the country "must declare war" on the virus. On Friday Rousseff visited one of the special centers set up to attend to the crisis and told reporters "We will win this war."

Lawyers, activists, and scientists have meanwhile asked Brazil's Supreme Court to allow abortions for pregnant women with the Zika virus. Abortion is currently severely restricted in Brazil, as it is in most of Latin America.

Meanwhile, there are growing signs that Zika could have an important impact on the Rio Olympic Games this summer. The International Olympic Committee has promised to issue guidelines to keep visitors and athletes safe.

Related: Are Mosquitoes Behind an Increase in Brazilian Babies Born With Abnormally Small Heads

Colombia:

Last week Colombia's health ministry called on women to postpone pregnancy plans until the country has moved out of the "epidemic phase" of infection that it estimated could last until July. The ministry also advised pregnant women to restrict travel to low lying areas where the mosquito thrives.

There are already 16,000 confirmed or suspected cases of Zika in Colombia. Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria also told reporters that he expected the year to end with 600,000 to 700,000 cases of infection.

Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos told The Associated Press this week that he now puts on a double layer of insect repellent and wears long sleeves during his regular bike rides.

Venezuela:

The Venezuelan authorities have not launched any special campaigns related to Zika, other than urging the population not to allow standing water to accumulate. Venezuela's health minister Luisana Melo said on Thursday that there are currently 4,700 suspected cases of Zika in the country, with 45 of them confirmed. Melo also said that most cases are not reported.

Non-official data from a network of doctors around the country suggests the first infections probably took place in the middle of last year, but that there has been a chronic shortage of the tests required to distinguish Zika from other similar mosquito-borne diseases such as Dengue.

Ecuador:

Ecuador's health ministry has announced that it has confirmed 22 cases of Zika infections, and suspects the virus is behind 70 other cases spread across the nation, including the Galapagos Islands.

Health Minister Margarita Guevara has announced an emergency fumigation program targeting mosquito breeding grounds in high risk areas, mainly in low lying regions on the coast and in the Amazon. He also encouraged people to cover up and use repellent.

Last week health officials advised women to delay pregnancies, though they did not say for how long.

Chile:

Chile was singled out by the CDC earlier this month as the only country in the Americas, other than Canada, where the disease is unlikely to reach because it does not have the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

The exception to the rule is Easter Island, located 2,000 miles off the Chilean coast, which registered cases of Zika infection two years ago. The current situation on mainland Latin America prompted the Chilean health authorities to announce they would be distributing powerful insect repellent to tourists upon their arrival on the island.

Argentina:

Argentina's health ministry has said that there is no evidence yet that Zika is actively circulating in the country, though there are currently unusually high levels of Dengue Fever which is carried by the same mosquito. The ministry said concern is currently focused on how to protect Argentine tourists who travel to Brazil and Colombia.

Peru:

Peru has yet to report its first case of a Zika infection, but the authorities announced they were installing 25,000 traps for mosquito larvae to aid early detection of the disease and allow rapid fumigation in areas where it appears. It will reportedly take several months to get the traps working.

Bolivia:

Bolivia has reported three confirmed cases of the disease, one of which involves a woman who is nine-weeks pregnant and had not travelled outside the Andean nation. Rodolfo Roabad, head of epidemiology at the country's health ministry, told reporters that a single case of an infected pregnant woman was not enough to justify a nationwide response.

El Salvador:

Salvadoran Health Minister Eduardo Espinoza last week urged women not to get pregnant this year or next because of the risk of Zika and its suspected link to birth abnormalities. El Salvador has a blanket ban on all abortions.

Espinoza said that the country had already registered 1,561 suspected cases of Zika this year, including 96 pregnant women. The government has also promised that teams of fumigators will be deployed around the tiny Central American country with a mission to control the spread of the mosquito.

Guatemala:

The Guatemalan health ministry announced last week that there have been 68 confirmed cases of Zika in the country and that all hospitals in the public system have been put on alert.

Mexico:

The Mexican authorities have adopted a wait-and-see approach. Deputy health minister for prevention Pablo Kuri said this week that there have been 18 confirmed cases of the virus in so far, but that this is not enough to warrant declaring an alert.

Kuri stressed that there was no danger at altitudes of 1,800 meters or above, and promised a public information campaign targeted at pregnant women in high risk areas to reduce the chance of getting bitten.

The minister also told Reuters that there was "no justification" for urging women not to get pregnant both because the number of cases in Mexico is still too small, and because such advice is unlikely to have much of an impact on whether women get pregnant or not.

Related: The Zika Virus Is Spreading Through the Americas Very Quickly

Simeon Tegel, Gaston Cavanagh, Victor Amaya, Alan Hernández and Jo Tuckman contributed to this report

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