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  • Researchers have linked the zika virus to the increase of babies being born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development.

    Researchers have linked the zika virus to the increase of babies being born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development. | Photo: Government of Brazil

Health authorities expect that the zika virus, linked to birth defects, will spread to all of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as southern U.S.

Colombian officials reported Wednesday that over 13,5000 cases of the mosquito-transmitted zika virus have been detected and the number of affected people in the country could rise to 700,000 as health experts warn the zika epidemic may spread to all of Latin America.

Colombia is now second in Latin America and the Caribbean for the extent of the zika outbreak, according to the Pan American Health Organization. Brazil is the most gravely affected among the 20 countries in the region that have been hit by the virus.

The zika virus is a tropical disease transmitted by mosquitos that has been linked to birth defects and death of newborns. Although birth defects have not yet been widespread in Colombia, pregnant women are among those who have been infected.

“We have 560 pregnant women among these 13,500 cases and we expect an expansion similar to that of the chikungunya virus last year to finish out the year with the number of cases between 600,000 and 700,000,” Colombian Minister of Health Alejandro Gaviria said in a press conference.

Health authorities have advised residents of affected areas, especially pregnant women, to take extreme precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitos. Pregnant women living in unaffected regions are encouraged not to travel to tropical areas where cases of the virus have been reported.

RELATED: Brazil Aims to Develop New Zika Virus Vaccine in 'Record Time'

Researchers have linked the zika virus to the increase in cases, especially in Brazil, of babies being born with abnormally small heads and partially developed brains, a birth defect known as microcephaly. Over 1,700 babies with microcephaly have been born in Brazil, according to the World Health Organization.

Zika, similar to dengue fever, did not appear in Latin America until 2014, when the disease spread across the Pacific from an affected region in Africa and Asia. The virus is now pandemic in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

According to the Pan American Health Organization, the virus will likely spread to all 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries as well as the southern part of the United States. According to U.S. health authorities, one baby with the zika-related birth defect has been born on U.S. soil.

The rise in the number of zika cases across Latin America follows an outbreak in the region in recent years of chikungunya, another mosquito-borne infection similar to zika that causes fever and joint pain. There is no vaccine to prevent either zika or chikungunya, though Brazil has dedicated funds to speeding up research to develop a zika vaccine.

Climate change could be responsible for the recent spread of mosquito-transmitted viruses. Global warming is increasingly making more areas hospitable environments in which tropical diseases such as zika and chikungunya can thrive.

Colombia is among 14 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean included in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first-ever travel warning due to the zika outbreak.

WATCH: Chikungunya Virus Making a Comeback in Honduras

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