Australia At Risk From Zika Outbreak If Disease Spreads To Asia: Expert

29/01/2016 5:19 PM AEDT | Updated July 15, 2016 12:51
Felipe Dana/AP
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes sit in a petri dish at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. The mosquito is a vector for the proliferation of the Zika virus currently spreading throughout Latin America. New figures from Brazil's Health Ministry show that the Zika virus outbreak has not caused as many confirmed cases of a rare brain defect as first feared. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The potentially deadly Zika virus could hit Australia this year, with far north Queensland the most likely location of an outbreak as global concern spreads about the devastating disease.

Recent outbreaks of the mosquito-born disease in a number of nations, including more than 1 million cases in Brazil, have been linked to serious birth defects such as microcephaly, which causes babies to have exceptionally small brains.

The World Health Organization (WHO) now forecasts 3 to 4 million people could be infected with Zika virus in the Americas in 2016 and has labelled the virus as "spreading explosively". The WHO will host an emergency meeting on the unfolding situation next week.

DFAT, meanwhile, has warned pregnant Australian women travelling to areas of Central and South America to take extra precautions against mosquitoes and has listed 22 nations as "countries of concern".

The full list can be viewed here.

James Cook University tropical disease expert, Professor Scott Ritchie, said it was "not that likely" an outbreak would occur in Australia, but warned that if it did north Queensland's wet season was the most likely time.

In the Australian tropics the wet season, also called the monsoon season, lasts about six months between November and March.

"For Cairns the highest risk period is going to be the wet season," Ritchie told The Huffington Post Australia. "It may not get to southeast Asia but I suspect it probably will."

"The scenario for us being under a higher risk would be if this zika outbreak spreads into southeast Asia like Indonesia and particularly Bali and they had a big epidemic there, then you'll see a lot of Australians import the virus."

Ritchie said any local outbreak would probably be contained to the nation's far north because that's where the Aedes aegypti species of mosquito, which transmits the virus, is found.

The coastal belt extending from Townsville to the north is thought to be most at risk.

Australian authorities needed to be highly vigilant in the current disease climate, Ritchie said.

"You've basically got to go to all the high risk areas and reduce mosquitoes," he said, adding that it was a difficult disease to treat because sufferers often showed few, if any, symptoms.

"By the time you figure out it's in an area it's already gone somewhere else, that's what makes this really difficult," he added.

Six Australians have reportedly been diagnosed with the disease after bringing it back with them from South America.

In Britain, five cases have been confirmed, also among travellers from South America. Five people have also reportedly been diagnosed with the virus in Portugal.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for calm amid growing worldwide panic, which comes months out from Brazil hosting the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee says it will do everything it can to keep the games free from the disease.

One stumbling block in halting the virus is that can be difficult to pick up during pregnancy. One woman, whose baby shows signs of the effects of Zika, recently described her son's birth as the "worst day of her life".

There is currently no vaccine to prevent Zika virus and no specific treatment for it.

In response to the outbreak, some officials in El Salvador, where abortions are banned and birth control is tough to obtain, are said to be promoting a two-year ban on pregnancy. But there are also reports the fast-spreading disease could prompt Latin American countries to relax abortion laws.

White House appointed U.S. Science Envoy, Dr Peter Hotez, said the lack of a vaccine for the virus was evidence of a "broken business mode" on disease control.

"We rely too much on the major pharmaceuticals to make all our vaccines who are mainly focused on a profit incentive, we need to bring in non profit organisations," he told the ABC.

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