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What you need to know about the Zika virus

Last Updated Jan 28, 2016 at 4:35 pm EDT

Declaring that the Zika virus is “spreading explosively,” the World Health Organization (WHO) says that it will hold an emergency meeting of independent experts on Monday to decide if the virus outbreak should be declared an international health emergency.

At a special meeting Thursday in Geneva, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said the virus – which has been linked to birth defects and neurological problems – is becoming more of a threat.

It’s only a matter of months, if not weeks, before this province has a number of diagnosed Zika cases, said Dr. Doug Sider, Medical Director of Communicable Disease Prevention and Control at Public Health Ontario.

Dr. Sider said this because of the number of Canadian tourists going to areas prone to the virus.

Canadian tourists in sunny, warm locales where Zika is prevalent may not be so compliant with requests to cover themselves with insect repellant and long-sleeved shirts.

Dr. Dana Devine from Canadian Blood Services said their temporary ban on receiving donations from people who have been to such areas should begin sometime next week. She says the deferral time should be a few weeks to a month.

The Zika virus is now in more than 20 countries, mostly in Central and South America. The WHO estimates there could be 3-4 million cases of Zika in the Americas over the next year.

WHO last declared an international emergency over the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Below is what you need to know about the virus.

How is the virus transmitted?
Zika is spread to humans by infected Aedes mosquitoes, which also spread dengue and yellow fever. These types of mosquitoes often live around buildings in urban areas and are usually active during daylight hours.

On Thursday, the WHO said China and other countries with dengue fever should be on the lookout for Zika virus infections.

Can it be spread from humans to humans?
The WHO says some evidence suggests Zika can also be transmitted to humans through blood transfusion, perinatal transmission (from mother to child) and sexual transmission, but adds “these modes are very rare.”

What are the symptoms?
The virus causes a mild fever and rash, but other symptoms include joint pain, headache, pain behind the eyes and conjunctivitis (inflammation of the mucous membrane that covers the front of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelids).

The Public Health Agency of Canada says most people recover fully without severe complications, and hospitalization rates are low.

The disease has similar clinical signs to dengue, and may be misdiagnosed in areas where dengue is common.

What is the incubation period?
The incubation period of Zika virus ranges from three to 12 days. The disease symptoms are usually mild and last for two to seven days.

Is there a vaccine?
There is no cure or vaccine for Zika. Treatment options are aimed to alleviating the symptoms.

The virus is related to dengue, and scientists have struggled for years to develop a dengue vaccine.

What is the risk to Canadians?
Three Canadians returned home from trips abroad with the Zika virus – two from B.C. and one in Alberta.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says the risk to Canadians is low because “mosquitoes known to transmit the virus are not established in Canada and are not well-suited to our climate.”

However, there is still a risk of contracting the virus while travelling to the affected regions.

Why is the international health community sounding the alarm?
Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan says the WHO is “deeply concerned” about Zika for four reasons: possible link to birth defects and brain syndromes, the prospect of further spread, a lack of immunity among people living in the newly affected areas and the absence of vaccines, treatments or quick diagnostic tests for the virus.

Marcos Espinal, WHO’s director of infectious diseases in the Americas region, said Brazil is conducting studies to determine if there is scientific evidence that Zika virus causes birth defects and neurological problems. He said they are hopeful Brazil may have data to share in a couple of months.

Brazil’s Zika outbreak and the spike in microcephaly cases among babies have been concentrated in the poor and underdeveloped northeast of the country, and through the southeast, where Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are located.

Travel advice for Canadians?
Although the Public Health Agency of Canada has not posted a travel restriction, a travel notice has been posted on its website about the virus and precautions travellers should take when travelling to countries that have cases of the virus.

It says travellers visiting the affected areas should take protective measures to prevent mosquito bites, including using insect repellent, screened doors and windows, and mosquito nets, as well as wearing protective clothing.

It recommends that women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant should check with their health care provider and consider postponing travel to the affected areas.

Will travellers be reimbursed if they cancelled their trips?
Air Canada says it will offer refunds or a chance to change flights, as part of their “goodwill” policy. It’s being offered to pregnant women with a doctor’s note, but anyone concerned with travelling should contact the Air Canada medical desk at 1-800-667-4732.

Air Transat says it will change destinations or dates for pregnant women with doctors’ notes but it won’t offer a refund.

Sunwing says “for pregnant woman who have approached us with concerns over travelling to affected destinations, depending on their circumstances and providing they have a medical note or cancellation insurance, we are allowing changes with no fees and refunding them should they choose to cancel.”

WestJet says it is allowing its guests “to change or cancel prior to travelling to infected areas. Refunds will be given in the form of future travel credit.”

Information compiled by the Public Health Agency of Canada, WHO, and The Associated Press