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Australia confirms two Zika virus cases in travellers returning to Sydney from Caribbean

By Claire Cromie

Published 02/02/2016

The 'unprecedented epidemic' could be leading to thousands of babies being born with birth defects
The 'unprecedented epidemic' could be leading to thousands of babies being born with birth defects

Australian health officials have confirmed two cases of Zika virus in passengers who had flown back to Sydney from the Caribbean.

The news comes hours after the World Health Organization's declaration of a "public health emergency of international concern".

The New South Wales Health department said the virus did not, however, pose a serious threat to Australia.

Dr Vicky Sheppeard Director of Communicable Diseases told Sydney Morning Herald: "It is very unlikely that Zika virus established local transmission in NSW as the mosquitoes that spread the infection are not established here - although they are found in some parts of north Queensland."

WHO officials have predicted as many as four million people could be infected with the virus this year.

The last time a global emergency was declared was for the Ebola outbreak, which is thought to have led to more than 11,000 deaths.

Zika has been linked to thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brains in Brazil.

Colombia has also seen a rise in the number of patients diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder which can cause paralysis.

Pregnant women are being advised to delay travelling to regions with a Zika outbreak, and Public Health England said men in the UK should wear condoms for a month after returning from any of the 23 countries affected by Zika.

>> The 23 countries with active Zika virus transmission: Full list << 

Following a meeting of an International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan said the causal relationship between infection during pregnancy and microcephaly in babies is "strongly suspected" but not scientifically proven.

"The committee found no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the threat of Zika virus," said Dr Chan.

"At present the most important protective measures are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals - especially pregnant women."

Since the start of the outbreak last year, five UK travellers have been diagnosed with the Zika virus.

While many do not even know they are infected, some can suffer symptoms including fever, joint pain, itching, rash, conjunctivitis or red eyes, headache, muscle pain and eye pain.

In the UK, the National Travel Health Network and Centre recommends that people who are pregnant or trying to becoming pregnant should reconsider travel to affected countries.

It has advised that any patients who suffer from a severe, chronic medical condition, or have medical conditions that weaken the immune system, should seek advice from health workers before travelling.

It has also urged health professionals to consider Zika as a possible diagnosis in any patients with fever returning from South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, south and south-east Asia and the Pacific region.

PHE said the risk of transmission of the virus through sex was very low but condoms should be used as a precaution.

At present, there are no vaccines, specific treatments or rapid diagnostic tests for the virus.

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