Three cases of the Zika virus have been confirmed in the UK in travellers returning from Colombia, Suriname and Guyana, as the epidemic spreads to more than 20 Latin and American countries.
The mosquito-borne virus does “not spread directly from person to person”, Public Health England said in a statement, though "a small number of cases have occurred through sexual transmission or by transmission from mother to foetus via the placenta". Zika “does not occur naturally in the UK”.
The virus, for which there is no known cure, is thought to cause microcephaly in unborn children, a condition which stops babies’ brains growing and causes abnormally small heads.
Since an outbreak of Zika in Brazil in October, a surge in microcephaly in newborns has been reported, with almost 4,000 cases.
The epidemic has prompted authorities in Colombia, Ecuador, El Savador and Jamaica to advise women against pregnancy. Colombia's health minister, Alejandro Gaviria, warned "there could be serious consequences" to falling pregnant, and has advised women to postpone doing so for six to eight months. His advice was "a good way to communicate the risk", he told Reuters.
Women in El Salvador should wait until 2018 before getting pregnant, the deputy health minister Eduardo Espinoza said, while Jamaica has asked women to avoid pregnancy for 6 to 12 months.
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
"Until we understand the science better, postponing planned pregnancies is a sensible option", Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Laura Rodrigues told the Independent. "The final choice of course must be the women's.
"This is a very new situation - it's only a few months since we discovered the link between Zika and microcephaly - and there are still big gaps in knowledge", she said.
But pregnancy is often not a choice for women in the region, according to women’s rights campaigners. "It's incredibly naive for a government to ask women to postpone getting pregnant in a context such as Colombia, where more than 50% of pregnancies are unplanned and across the region where sexual violence is prevalent," Women's Link Worldwide member Monica Roa told the BBC.
While the link between Zika and microcephaly has not been confirmed, the Zika virus was found in five of the 49 babies who have died of microcephaly in Brazil so far, according to the country’s health ministry.
The virus causes only mild flu-like symptoms in adults and typically lasts between four to seven days. With no cure currently available, avoiding bites from the virus host Aedes aegypti mosquito is the only way to prevent infection. Research to develop a vaccine has been announced by the US and Brazilian governments.
US authorities have warned pregnant women against travelling to 22 countries where Zika cases have been registered.