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Stormont to discuss Zika after news some Northern Ireland people now carry virus

By Ann W Schmidt

Published 15/09/2016

Withdrawal: Rory McIlroy
Withdrawal: Rory McIlroy

Fears over the news that people carrying the Zika virus have been diagnosed in Northern Ireland are to be discussed at Stormont today.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) yesterday confirmed that since 2015 there had been a small number of cases diagnosed here.

"All have a history of travel to Zika-affected areas," the agency said.

Earlier this year the World Health Organisation declared the virus' link to microcephaly found in babies born to infected mothers a public health emergency. It was worries over the dangerous effect Zika has on unborn babies that stopped Co Down golfer Rory McIlroy taking part in the Rio Olympics, as the virus has been rampant in Brazil.

UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson said news that it had been diagnosed here was concerning, and criticised the Health Minister for not making the announcement herself.

"This news is an extremely worrying development and the fact that this virus has been linked to thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brains will be disturbing for local people," she said. "I am concerned that despite being in the Assembly chamber answering questions yesterday, and having the opportunity to update the public on this development, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill chose silence over providing clarity."

A Department of Health spokesman responded by saying the PHA was responsible for dealing with Zika.

"Given the geographical spread of the Zika virus, it is not unexpected that some travellers from here have come in contact with the virus and arrangements are in place to respond. As lead body for public health, the PHA has operational responsibility in this matter."

In a statement the PHA confirmed that "there have been less than five cases of Northern Ireland residents diagnosed with the Zika virus".

It added: "The Zika virus is an infection transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes. The infection often occurs without symptoms but it can cause a mild illness which can include fever, headache, rash, joint and muscle pain, and conjunctivitis," the statement read.

Ms Dobson said she will be raising the issue of the Zika virus' presence in Northern Ireland at Stormont today. "I would urge the minister to inform at-risk groups about the risks and how to protect themselves.

"As I understand it, there are currently no vaccines or drugs to treat the virus with patients undergoing treatment being advised to drink water and rest.

"The minister must also ensure that her department closely monitors developments in both managing and understanding the virus as work is ongoing across the world to develop treatment and testing regimes."

The PHA has more information about the Zika virus on its website.

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