In many areas of South America, where the epidemic began, the virus itself is old news, but the potentially devastating consequences are just beginning to surface.
The Zika virus is believed to be related to microcephaly, a serious birth defect associated with abnormal brain development. In Colombia, the number of pregnant women being infected with the virus is reaching critical mass.
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said that more than 3,000 pregnant women have been infected with the virus, but said that the disease has not caused any cases of microcephaly.
However, there’s increasing evidence that the Zika virus is the agent behind the birth defect. Researchers recently tested the spinal fluids of 12 babes born with microcephaly and found the Zika virus in all 12 cases, PBS reports. Their mothers had all shown symptoms of the Zika virus early in their pregnancy.
“I was so surprised,” Marli Tenório, an infectious disease expert at the Aggeu Magalhães Research Center, told PBS. “Everybody wants to say, ‘It’s not Zika, it’s not Zika.’ I saw this and thought, ‘Wow, it’s Zika!'”
The number of microcephaly cases in Brazil has shot up since the spread of the Zika virus began in 2015, although the connection between the two hasn’t been proven scientifically.
“We used to have 10 cases a year in Pernambuco. Then in August we started having 10 cases a week,” Dr. Angela Rocha, an infectious disease specialist at a large public hospital in Brazil, told PBS.
A number of Latin American governments have advised women not to get pregnant temporarily as the virus spreads across the continent. El Salvadorean health officials went as far as recommending that women delay pregnancies until 2018.
Even as the number of Zika cases grows in the United States, the CDC has stated that it’s unlikely for the virus to spread within the country via mosquito bites, due to the widespread availability of air conditioning and indoor screens. All known cases have been from people who returned from a trip to Latin America, and in one case, through sexual intercourse.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.