The Mosquito-borne Zika virus is sweeping through South America — and could infect hundreds of thousands of people, governments have warned.
The virus can lead to common symptoms like headaches and joint pains. But if it hits pregnant women it can lead to huge problems for their children, leading to birth defects like microcephaly or abnormally small heads.
The disease has already infected thousands of people across Colombia and Brazil, governments there have said. And if it follows the spread of other similar viruses those numbers could reach into the hundreds of thousands.
In Brazil, the disease is thought to have led to as many as 4,000 babies being born with microcephaly since October. That number was only 150 throughout 2014, and experts put the huge rise down to the spread of the virus.
The Colombian government has warned women that they should delay becoming pregnant for six to eight months, until the disease is under control. No newborns in Colombia are yet reported to have suffered from microcephaly, though of the 13,500 people already infected some 560 are pregnant women.
"We are the second country [in Latin America] after Brazil in the number of reported cases," Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria said.
He advised women in the country not to get pregnant for the rest of the outbreak - which he said could last until July.
Battling the zika virus - in pictures
Battling the zika virus - in pictures
A worker of the Salvadorean Ministry of Health fumigates a house in Soyapango, 6 kilometers from San Salvador, El Salvador. Salvadorean authorities have began a three days campaign of fumigation to reduce the presence of the mosquito that transmit the Zika virus.
A Health Ministry employee fumigates a home against the Aedes aegypti mosquito to prevent the spread of the Zika virus in Soyapango, six km east of San Salvador. Health authorities have issued a national alert against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, because of the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly and Guillain-BarrÈ Syndrome in foetuses.
AFP PHOTO/Marvin RECINOSMarvin RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images
A pediatric infectologist examines a two-months-old baby, who has microcephaly, on 26 January 2016 in Recife, Brazil.
A woman walks through the fumes as Health Ministry employee fumigate against the Aedes aegypti mosquito to prevent the spread of the Zika virus in Soyapango.
Marvin RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images
A health ministry employee sprays to eliminate breeding sites of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which transmits diseases such as the dengue, chicunguna and Zica viruses, in a Tegucigalpa cemetery on January 21, 2016. The medical school at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) recommended that women in the country avoid getting pregnant for the time being due to the presence of the Zika virus. If a pregnant woman is infected by the virus, the baby could be born with microcephaly.
AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA
A man walks away from his home with his son as health workers fumigates the Altos del Cerro neighbourhood as part of preventive measures against the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in Soyapango, El Salvador
A three-months-old, who has microcephaly, in Recife, Brazil.
A pregnant woman waits to be attended at the Maternal and Children's Hospital in Tegucigalpa. The medical school at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) recommended that women in the country avoid getting pregnant for the time being due to the presence of the Zika virus. If a pregnant woman is infected by the virus, the baby could be born with microcephaly.
ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images
Army soldiers apply insect repellent as they prepare for a clean up operation against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is a vector for transmitting the Zika virus in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
AP Photo/Andre Penner
Workers disinfect the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro to fight the spread of the Zika virus
Dr. Vanessa Van Der Linden, the neuro-pediatrician who first recognized the microcephaly crisis in Brazil, measures the head of a 2-month-old baby with microcephaly in Recife
Mother Mylene Helena Ferreira cares for her son David Henrique Ferreira, 5 months, who has microcephaly, on January 25, 2016 in Recife, Brazil. In the last four months, authorities have recorded close to 4,000 cases in Brazil in which the mosquito-borne Zika virus may have led to microcephaly in infants
U.S. women who are pregnant from traveling to many South American countries
In the last four months, authorities have recorded close to 4,000 cases in Brazil in which the mosquito-borne Zika virus may have led to microcephaly in infants.
Dr. Vanessa Van Der Linden, the neuro-pediatrician who first recognized the microcephaly crisis in Brazil, examines a two-month-old baby with microcephaly on January 27, 2016 in Recife, Brazil
Brazil is one of the countries in South America where the Zika virus has taken hold
Health workers fumigating to combat Zika virus in Lima, Peru. The US have already issued a warning urging pregnant women to avoid travel to Latin American countries
Two-month-old Jose Wesley, born with microcephaly in Brazil, is nursed by his brother
The US Center for Disease Control has also warned women not to travel to 14 countries, including Colombia and other countries in South America, for fear that they may be struck by the virus. Brazil is experiencing the largest outbreak of the disease.
“With the recent outbreaks in the Americas, the number of Zika virus disease cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States likely will increase," the travel alert reads. "These imported cases may result in local spread of the virus in some areas of the continental United States, meaning these imported cases may result in human-to-mosquito-to-human spread of the virus.”
The effects of Zika are usually mild. And only one in five of those people that are infected with it actually experience symptoms.
But experts say that the disease could also lead to microcephaly. That leads to a smaller than average head size when the brain grows at a slower rate, and can lead to problems like intellectual disability, developmental delays and can even be fatal.
The Brazilian government is working to diagnose and fight the disease faster. The country is funding new vaccines and testing kits.
At the moment, the only way to stop the spread of the disease is to clear the stagnant water that mosquitoes breed in, and to work to stop people getting bitten by the insects.