Canada’s public health agency has confirmed the country’s first case of Zika-related defects in a fetus. A spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada said on Friday that the fetus has “severe congenital neurological anomalies,” but didn’t provide further information citing privacy reasons.
Rebecca Gilman said it is Canada’s second case of maternal-to-fetal transmission of the virus, which has been linked to serious birth defects that include microcephaly, where babies are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains to mothers who were infected while pregnant. Gilman said the first Canadian case of maternal-to-fetus transmission occurred in a baby that was confirmed to have the virus, but did not have related birth defects and so far appears normal.
A World Health Organization report released on Thursday also mentions Canada as the latest country to report a case of congenital malformation associated with a Zika infection. Zika is primarily transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, which isn’t found in Canada. Mosquitos transmitting Zika have recently been found in a part of Miami, Fla., prompting Canada’s public health agency to warn pregnant women to avoid travelling there. As of Thursday, there have been 205 confirmed cases of travel-related Zika infections in Canada and two cases of sexual transmission.
University of Toronto professor of medicine and infectious disease expert Jay Keystone said he isn’t surprised to see more cases of Zika emerging, but the problem is much worse in countries dealing with mosquito-borne transmission of the virus, such as Brazil. “It was a matter of time before we start seeing Zika cases in Canada and it’s a matter of time before a fetus was infected from the virus,” he said. “The hope is there will be less and less as Canadians become more aware of the risk.”
Keystone said the Aedes mosquito is a daytime-biting insect most active in the morning and late afternoon, and using mosquito repellent and covering your body as much as possible in areas with Zika outbreaks is important.
University Health Network infectious diseases specialist Isaac Bogoch said the full range of health issues related to Zika still isn’t clear, and doctors will be closely watching babies who have been infected to see if cognitive problems emerge as they grow. “We know microcephaly is one illness the developing child can have, and it can be pretty catastrophic at times. But they may have a whole spectrum of defects which can include cognitive deficits, they can have problems with vision, they can have problems with hearing.”
He added that Canadians should take precautions but don’t need to be alarmed, calling the guidelines for preventing infections “spot on.”
“The level of concern here is low, but we can’t let our guard down,” he said. “It’s appropriately low, but it’s not zero.”
Canada’s public health agency has recommended that women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant shouldn’t travel to areas with Zika outbreaks. But men who are travelling also need to be aware of the risks — current Canadian public health guidelines say men who have travelled to Zika-infected areas should consider using condoms or avoid having sex for six months to avoid transmitting the virus to partners. They also say women who have travelled to areas with Zika outbreaks should wait at least two months before trying to conceive.