The Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness that shrinks the heads and brains of fetuses, will likely soon be found through “all the Americas,” the World Health Organization warned on Sunday. “Zika virus will continue to spread and will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found,” officials from WHO’s Pan American Health Organization said. Aedes mosquitoes are found in every country in the Americas besides Canada and Chile and also transmit diseases like yellow fever and West Nile virus.
The infection is native to Africa but spread to the Western Hemisphere, where populations lack natural immunity to the virus, in 2015. The first case was reported in Brazil in May, and it has since spread to 21 countries in the Caribbean and the Americas. While 80 percent of those who contract Zika experience no effects, and most others suffer only mild flulike symptoms, the virus is profoundly damaging to the unborn. In Brazil, 3,500 cases of microcephaly — babies born with shrunken heads and tiny brains — have been linked to Zika since October, according to the BBC. That epidemic of birth defects has led some governments to discourage women from getting pregnant, with El Salvador suggesting all pregnancies be delayed until 2018.
Last week, three New Yorkers who had recently traveled outside the country were diagnosed with Zika, the Associated Press reports. The state’s Department of Health assured residents Friday that there is “virtually no risk of acquiring Zika virus in New York State at this time as the virus cannot be spread by casual contact with an infected person and mosquitoes are not active in cold winter months.” But the virus can, apparently, be spread through not-so-casual contact. PAHO announced Sunday that the infection had been “isolated in human semen” and that one instance of “possible person-to-person sexual transmission has been described.”