Health officials are playing down the scares associated with the risk of a European outbreak of the infectious Zika virus – although they admit it is possible as the weather gets warmer.
Meanwhile, 279 pregnant women in the US and its territories have tested positive for infection with Zika. Of these, 157 are in the US and another 122 are in US territories, primarily Puerto Rico, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Back in Europe, a statement from the World Health Organization (WHO) in Europe said on Wednesday, that the overall risk was ‘small to moderate’ throughout most of Europe but is highest in areas where Aedes mosquitoes thrive. These are the Portuguese island of Madeira and the north-eastern coast of the Black Sea.
“There is a risk of spread of Zika virus disease in the European Region and … this risk varies from country to country, said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO’s regional director for Europe.
“We call particularly on countries at higher risk to strengthen their national capacities and prioritize the activities that will prevent a large Zika outbreak.”
The WHO’s European region covers 53 countries and a population of nearly 900 million. It stretches from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south and from the Atlantic in the west to the Pacific in the east.
An outbreak of Zika that began in Brazil has caused concern across the world. It has been linked to thousands of cases of the birth defect microcephaly where mothers became infected with Zika while pregnant.
The WHO has said there is strong scientific consensus that Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological condition that causes temporary paralysis in adults. GBS has also been linked to other neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis.
The WHO’s Geneva headquarters in February declared the Zika outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), warning it was spreading “explosively” in the Americas.
The WHO’s European office said that if no measures are taken to mitigate the threat, the presence of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that can carry the virus mean the likelihood of local Zika transmission is moderate in 18 countries in the region.
A further 36 European countries have low, very low or no likelihood, the assessment found. Aedes mosquitoes are not found in those countries and their climates would not be suitable for the mosquitoes to establish themselves.
Paul Hunter, a professor of health protection at Britain’s University of East Anglia, described the WHO’s Zika risk warning as ‘timely and real’ but added that any outbreak would probably be relatively short-lived.
“The risk is mostly in southern Europe and especially around the Mediterranean coast,” he said. “However, even if Zika did start to spread in Europe, it is unlikely to become established as an outbreak is very unlikely to continue over winter.”
The WHO’s European risk analysis took in multiple factors, among them the presence of Zika-transmitting mosquitoes, suitable climates for the mosquito, previous history of transmission of dengue fever or chikungunya virus, ship and flight connections, and population density and urbanization.
It also considered the capacity of the country to contain transmission at an early stage, based on four main factors: vector control, clinical surveillance, laboratory capacity and emergency risk communications.