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Zika virus could spread to parts of Europe by summer, says WHO

Published 18/05/2016

The Zika virus is expected to spread to parts of Europe in late spring and summer, health leaders have said.

Many top holiday spots have been identified as having a "moderate" risk, including France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Greece, Turkey and Switzerland.

But official advice for UK travellers remains unchanged.

If the virus spreads to France, there could be implications for the impending Euro 2016 championships. Thousands of supporters from across the UK will travel to France for the tournament, which begins on June 10.

Health officials have already been forced to consider the impact of the virus in Brazil ahead of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged pregnant women not to travel to the area and issued advice for athletes and visitors.

A third of countries in Europe and surrounding regions have a "moderate" risk of a Zika outbreak, according to the latest WHO risk assessment.

While the UK is deemed to be "low" risk, global health chiefs have urged preparedness.

Officials should continue to be alert to detect imported cases early and provide public health advice to travellers, the WHO said.

The overall risk across Europe is said to be "low to moderate". The WHO said risk varies across the continent and is higher where the mosquito that carries the virus is present.

The likelihood of local Zika virus transmission, if no measures are taken to mitigate the threat, is moderate in 18 countries in Europe.

The risk is high on the island of Madeira and the north-eastern coast of the Black Sea.

Thirty-six countries - or 66% - have a low risk, very low risk or no likelihood, owing to the absence of Aedes mosquitoes or suitable climatic conditions for their establishment.

Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe, said: "The new evidence published today tells us that there is a risk of spread of Zika virus disease in the European region and that this risk varies from country to country.

"With this risk assessment, we at WHO want to inform and target preparedness work in each European country based on its level of risk.

"We call particularly on countries at higher risk to strengthen their national capacities and prioritise the activities that will prevent a large Zika outbreak."

Professor Paul Cosford, medical director at Public Health England, said: "Public Health England is monitoring the international situation closely and the risk to the UK remains unchanged. We have excellent disease prevention, surveillance and control measures in place which mean that we are very well protected against Zika in the UK, and we have given advice to people on how to protect themselves overseas.

"Apart from travellers to areas with active transmission of Zika virus, it is important to be aware that the public health risk posed by Zika virus in England is very low. The Aedes aegypti mosquito responsible for transmitting the virus is not present in the UK and is unlikely to establish in the near future as the UK climate is not conducive to the mosquito's survival.

"Our advice remains precautionary and is based on the fact that our main concern is to avoid infection in pregnancy, in order to avoid risk to the unborn child. We expect to see small numbers of Zika virus infections in travellers returning to the UK, but the risk to the wider population is very low as the mosquito that spreads the Zika virus is not found in the UK.

"A small number of cases of sexual transmission have been reported globally, the risk of sexual transmission is considered to be low. We give specific advice to male partners of pregnant women, which is available through our website."

Dr Dipti Patel, director of the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC), said: "We strongly advise all travellers to avoid mosquito bites and recommend that pregnant women should postpone non-essential travel to areas where Zika virus outbreaks are ongoing until after their pregnancy.

"If travel is unavoidable, or they live in areas where active Zika virus transmission is reported, they should take scrupulous insect bite avoidance measures both during daytime and night-time hours and also seek advice from their GP, midwife or obstetrician.

"Women who are planning to become pregnant should discuss their travel plans with their healthcare provider to assess the risk of infection with Zika virus and receive advice on mosquito bite avoidance measures."

The most recent figures show that 23 UK travellers have been infected after visiting affected regions.

The majority of those infected with Zika will have no symptoms, but for others it can cause a mild illness with symptoms including a rash, fever and headache.

Serious complications that arise from infection are not common, but experts have said the virus can cause microcephaly and other congenital abnormalities in babies born to mothers infected with the virus as well as a rare disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

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