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Zika virus could reach Europe this summer, WHO warns

Zika, the mosquito-borne virus predominantly reported in Latin America, could spread into Europe as soon as late spring or this summer, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Wednesday, giving the continent's overall risk of an outbreak as "low to moderate".

Having conducted a risk assessment on the region, WHO Europe said the matter should not be taken lightly, especially as Aedes mosquitoes can thrive in certain parts of Europe.

Aedes aegypti mosquitos are seen in a lab at the Fiocruz institute on January 26, 2016 in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil.
Mario Tama | Getty Images
Aedes aegypti mosquitos are seen in a lab at the Fiocruz institute on January 26, 2016 in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil.

The Black Sea coastal areas of Georgia and Russia, along with the island of Madeira, are seen as having the highest likelihood of being susceptible to the virus—if appropriate measures aren't taken to reduce the threat—as this is where Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes flourish.

Meanwhile, for 18 countries predominantly located around the Mediterranean basin, the risk is "moderate" as the Aedes Albopictus species is present there.

The other 36 nations assessed, including the U.K., Germany and Poland, have received a "low, very low or no likelihood" of seeing a local Zika virus transmission, as these areas are not typically suitable for Aedes species, due to climatic conditions.

To complete this risk assessment, WHO Europe took into account a multitude of elements, including population density, certain transport connections, climatic conditions, and a country's ability to confine a Zika spread early on.

In February, WHO declared the disease as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), and in April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the virus could cause birth defect microcephaly, along with other serious brain anomalies.

Typical symptoms of the virus include conjunctivitis, skin rash, mild fever, muscle and/or joint pain; however pregnant women are warned to take extra precaution due to the disease.

For those with a moderate to high probability, the UN health agency is calling on these nations to bolster their vector-control procedures and reduce breeding sites for mosquitoes; while preparing health experts with the appropriate skills and training, so they can identify early signs of Zika and alert cases quickly, while providing the right care to those affected, particularly pregnant women.

Places with a smaller risk should still take appropriate vector-control methods, and report any cases as quickly as possible.

"We stand ready to support European countries on the ground in case of Zika virus outbreaks," Dr Nedret Emiroglu, director of the communicable diseases and health security division at WHO's Europe office, said in a statement.

"Our support to countries in the region to prepare for and respond to health risks such as Zika is a key aspect of the reform of WHO's work in emergencies."

To identify each country's strengths and weaknesses, along with what requirements are needed in tackling Zika, WHO will discuss the findings and the overall threat in Portugal, this June.