An Irish tropical diseases expert has warned there are “lots of unknowns” about the Zika virus epidemic.
The mosquito-borne virus is linked to brain defects in thousands of babies born in Brazil, but there have been no confirmed cases of the disease in Ireland.
The head of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine, Sam McConkey said that it was unclear how long the virus stayed in the body.
“There are lots of unknowns in what is a rapidly changing situation. We must reorganise our research priorities and focus on the Zika virus,” said Professor McConkey.
Research is under way to better understand how the virus affects babies. Like many other mosquito-borne diseases, there is no vaccine against Zika.
The World Health Organisation has warned Zika was “spreading explosively” in the Americas.
The WHO is to hold an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss whether the outbreak qualifies as an international public health emergency.
“We have not got definite evidence of cases in Ireland but it would be someone who had travelled to Central or South America,” said Prof McConkey.
Medical director of Tropical Medical Bureau, Graham Fry, said he had treated a patient with the virus about two months ago.
The man had just returned from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and, while he did not confirm his diagnosis, he had no doubt it was the Zika virus.
Dr Fry said the Zika virus was not currently a notifiable disease in Ireland, mainly because person-to-person transmission was an extremely low risk.
Also, because of Ireland’s colder climate, the risk from mosquitos was not a problem, although it was very likely that cases would continue to emerge among returning international travellers. Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said travel advisories for 20 countries had been issued in response to the Zika virus outbreak.
The minister urged pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant to consider delaying travel to affected areas and consult their GP.
Meanwhile, flu activity remains at “moderately high levels”, according to the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
Seven deaths from flu this winter have been reported to the centre.
Prof McConkey said that the unofficial figure could be higher with many older people who contracted undiagnosed flu dying at home from pneumonia.
He remained disappointed that just one in four workers in public hospitals and long- term care facilities had received the flu vaccine and said that managers should be aiming for 80% to 90% coverage among their staff.
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