As the mosquito-borne Zika virus continues to spread swiftly across Latin America amid government attempts to control the epidemic as much as possible, more than 2,000 pregnant women in Colombia are reportedly infected with the virus that has been linked to brain underdevelopment in newborn babies.
Health officials report that more than 20,000 cases of Zika virus have been recorded in Colombia, making it the second worst affected country by Zika after Brazil, home to the epicenter of the outbreak.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has declared “war” on the zika virus, and scientists are hard at work looking for ways to stem the spread, including through the use of genetically-modified mosquitos that make larvae die off when they bred with wild mosquitoes. There is no vaccine available to protect against zika.
Brazil is also looking into some 3,400 cases of babies being born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development, a condition known as microcephaly, which is thought to be caused by the Zika virus. While zika is usually not considered to be highly dangerous, causing symptoms similar to dengue fever, the suspected linked to microcephaly has sparked widespread alarm over the public health crisis.
WATCH: Zika Virus Could Be Linked to Microcephaly Cases in Brazil
The latest statistics come as health experts are raising alarm and considering whether to treat the outbreak as a global health crisis.
“In many ways the Zika outbreak is worse than the Ebola epidemic of 2014 to 2015,” Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust told The Guardian on Saturday adding that the “silent” manner in which the virus spreads makes it particularly threatening.
Meanwhile, Paraguay estimates between 1,000 and 2,000 cases of Zika in areas near the border with Brazil. Health authorities are also monitoring some 150 women considered at risk of having babies with microcephaly.
In Central America, Honduras has joined various other governments in the region in calling on citizens to keep their guard up and take precautions to avoid getting infected with the Zika virus, as well as the mosquito-borne diseases Chikungunya and dengue fever. According to Honduran health data, the country is suffering more than 1,000 cases of Zika, some 400,000 cases of dengue, and around 3,000 cases of Chikungunya.
Zika did not appear in Latin America until recently, when the disease spread across the Pacific from an affected region in Africa and Asia. Zika originated in a forest in Uganda, where scientists discovered it by accident in 1947 while researching yellow fever. The virus had never reached Latin America until 2014, but it is now pandemic in Central and South America and the Caribbean. It reached Brazil after spreading to French Polynesia in 2013.
Researchers suggest 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.
What’s more, the ongoing strong El Niño climatic effect has brought heavy rains to many parts of South America in recent months, which creates more prime stagnant water breeding grounds for mosquitos, increasing the risk of Zika spreading rapidly.
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 the World Health Organization, Zika is “spreading explosively” across the region, putting up to 4 million people across the Americas at risk.
The WHO is set to hold an emergency meeting of world health experts on Monday to discuss the Zika epidemic and determine whether the outbreak should be deemed a global health crisis.
WATCH: The Zika Virus Spreads Around Latin America