World Health agency advises delaying pregnancy over Zika risk

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Millions of couples in 46 countries where the Zika virus may pose a risk have been warned to avoid getting pregnant, according to an updated report from the World Health Organization.

The virus is thought to cause birth defects like microcephaly, which prevents the growth of a baby’s head and sometimes its brain. Zika has spread throughout Latin American and Caribbean countries, including the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The report indicates that sexual transmission of the bug “is possible and more common than previously assumed.” There is no vaccine to prevent the disease, and no known treatments are available for those it infects.

Because eradicating mosquitoes that carry the virus have failed to slow the spread of the disease, delaying pregnancy may be the best way that women in threatened areas can avoid the possibility of giving birth to children with potentially severe defects. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, most people infected by Zika don’t get sick, and those that do may not exhibit symptoms for as long as a week.

The World Health Organization encourages government health programs to make sure people at risk of infection receive counseling about safe-sex practices. The organization also encourages couples who are returning from countries where Zika is present to “wait at least eight weeks before trying to conceive,” and at least six months if the male partner has been infected.

The virus, which can cause symptoms like fever and a rash, can be spread through bites by Aedes mosquitoes and through bodily fluids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some professional athletes have said they won’t attend the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, set for August for fear of being infected by the virus. The world health body plans to meet again next week to determine whether to recommend delaying the games or changing the location.

Last month,  Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa health law professor, pushed to postpone or move the games in an article published in the Harvard Public Health Review.

“Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago,” Attaran wrote. “Which leads to a bitter truth: The 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession.”

However, not all experts agree. According to a Reuters report, the games would occur during Brazil’s winter season, when mosquito activity is low. The report added that the CDC has projected the Olympics would “contribute a 0.25 percent increase in the overall risk of disease spread from travel to and from areas with active Zika transmission.”

As of May 25, there were 591 Zika cases reported in the U.S., including 16 in Massachusetts, all of them associated with travel or relations with travelers, according to the U.S. agency based in Atlanta.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.