It’s a nightmare scenario for pregnant women. Zika virus, a little-understood, mosquito-borne disease that may be causing rare but devastating birth defects, is spreading like wildfire throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
Colombia’s health experts are struggling to get a handle on Zika and figure out how to mitigate an epidemic in the country.
But for now, their best advice is to just not get pregnant.
“It is recommended that women postpone — to the extent possible — the decision to become pregnant until the country can move out of the epidemic phase of the Zika virus,” reads a statement released by Colombia’s Ministry of Health earlier this month.
National health officials also recommended that pregnant women or women who could become pregnant avoid traveling to low-lying regions or take extra precautions to avoid mosquito bites.
And those living in areas that are home to the species of mosquito that can carry Zika should move to higher altitude cities if possible.
By the end of last year, cases of the virus had been confirmed in roughly one out of six Colombian municipalities located less than 2,200 meters (7,220 feet) above sea level.
The Health Ministry has monitored more than 9,200 suspected cases of the virus, including more than 200 pregnant women, 14 of whom were confirmed to have been infected with Zika.
Zika in adults causes acute symptoms including chills, fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). No deaths have ever been recorded.
Outbreaks have been recorded on at least three continents.
But a recent and particularly widespread outbreak of Zika in Brazil drew international attention when rates of a rare birth defect skyrocketed starting last year.
An unusual number of babies were born with microcephaly— as many as 3,500 so far, according to the World Health Organization. The disorder is characterized by a smaller than normal head and malformed brain.
While scientists are still working to understand the connection between the Zika virus and microcephaly, Colombia’s Health Ministry estimates that approximately one out of every 1,000 babies carried by mothers infected during pregnancy could be born developmental defects.
There is not currently any vaccine against Zika, but the CDC recommends wearing mosquito repellant and sleeping under a mosquito net to avoid being bitten by the mosquitoes that carry the virus.
Mosquitoes that carry Zika are typically more active during the day. They are the same Aedes aegypti responsible for the transmission of Dengue and Chikungunya.