The mosquito borne Zika virus is now expected to spread across the Americas, the World Health Organization said Monday.
According to the organization's regional office, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the virus will likely “continue to spread and will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found.”
“Aedes mosquitoes – the main vector for Zika transmission – are present in all the region's countries except Canada and continental Chile,” PAHO stated.
According to the organization, Zika is spreading rapidly through the region because “population of the Americas had not previously been exposed to Zika and therefore lacks immunity.”
PAHO previously warned countries in the Americas to take measures to prevent the spread of the virus in October 2015, after cases of the previously unknown virus began to appear in the region in 2014.
The mosquito-borne virus causes symptoms similar to dengue and chikungunya, with symptoms including fever and joint pain. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, no confirmed cases of Zika have led to death, and symptoms normally last no longer than a week.
However, in recent weeks health officials have raised concerns the virus could be linked to a rare brain defect among newborn babies, which has caused deaths.
“Although Zika typically causes only mild symptoms, outbreaks in Brazil have coincided with a marked increase in microcephaly – or unusually small head size – in newborns,” PAHO said.
The organization recommended, “Pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid mosquito bites.”
In Brazil, microcephaly, a condition which affects the development of an infant’s brain, is believed to have affected 3,893 newborn babies since authorities began investigating the surge in October, local officials said earlier this month.
Initial estimates released by Brazil’s Health Ministry last week reported 3,500 cases of Zika.
In 2014, Brazil recorded fewer than 150 cases of microcephaly. Although Brazilian officials suspect the sudden jump could be linked to an outbreak of the Zika virus, though the World Health Organization says more research is needed.
“Health authorities and agencies are now investigating the potential connection between microcephaly and Zika virus, in addition to other possible causes. However more investigation and research is needed before we will be able to better understand any possible link,” the organization said.