Health officials have declared the Zika epidemic over in Colombia, but microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which have been linked to the mosquito-borne virus, remain concerns in the South American country.
“Colombia is the first country in the Americas to declare a close to the epidemic,” said Fernando Ruíz, the deputy health minister, at a news conference.
Health officials say the number of infections has dropped to 600 new cases a week from a peak of more than 6,000 cases a week. According to Ruíz, the numbers indicate that the epidemic has given way to an endemic phase of the disease, meaning that it remains present but is spreading much more slowly.
In response to this shift, Colombia has lifted the recommendation made at the peak of the epidemic that women postpone pregnancy, according to reports in the Guardian.
Still, there “may eventually be extended outbreaks,” says Ruíz, and there is still the looming threat of Zika-related birth defects.
Nearly 100,000 Colombians have been diagnosed with Zika since the first cases were confirmed last October. Zika is linked to more than 20 cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads.
Health officials said that nearly 18,000 of Colombians who were infected are women whose pregnancies have been under watch by health officials for birth defects. At the news conference, Ruíz said he expected to see a spike in microcephaly in September and October, as women who were infected during their first trimester – when fetal brain development is most vulnerable – begin to give birth.
Zika has also been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune condition that causes temporary paralysis and, in some cases, leads to death. According to the Guardian, Colombia has recorded 350 cases of Guillain-Barré related to the Zika virus.
Meanwhile, the virus is continuing to spread throughout the Americas. According to the latest figures by the CDC, Zika has infected more than 1,400 people on the U.S. mainland, including 400 pregnant women, most likely through travel to endemic areas or sexual transmission. Federal officials are also investigating the first two cases of Zika that may have been contracted in the U.S. state of Florida, which may be the first cases of Zika being spread within the U.S. mainland.
CDC officials have said they are prepared to see locally transmitted cases like this in southern states with warm and humid climates such as Florida, Louisiana and Texas. The health institute also updated its Zika virus guidelines on Monday, saying that pregnant women could contract Zika from a sex partner of either gender.
The WHO estimates that Zika could eventually affect as many as 4 million people as it spreads through Latin America and the Caribbean and could spread to other parts of the world. A Barcelona hospital reported that it may have seen the first case of Zika-related microcephaly in Europe, as a woman who traveled to Latin America gave birth to a baby with the birth defect earlier this week.