CDC expands Zika travel advisory for pregnant women to more countries

The list of countries pregnant women are being urged to avoid because of concerns about the mosquito-borne Zika virus has gotten longer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday added eight more locations to the list of countries and territories it says pregnant women should not visit, if they can avoid it: Barbados, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Guyana, Cape Verde, and Samoa.

More may be added as the virus sweeps through South and Central America and the Caribbean. On Friday, the Associated Press reported St. Croix, in the US Virgin Islands, had diagnosed Zika infection in a woman who had not recently traveled off the island, which means the virus is spreading locally.

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There has been growing concern in Brazil that a surge in babies born with abnormally small heads — a condition called microcephaly — may have been related to the mothers’ infection with Zika virus during pregnancy. Brazil has been experiencing an explosive Zika outbreak since last spring.

There is also growing suspicion that Zika might be linked to a sharp increase in cases of a neurological condition known Guillain-Barré syndrome. The condition causes progressive paralysis from the feet upward. Most people recover after a time, but it can occasionally be fatal.

Alex Hogan/STAT Zika virus, which can be transmitted by mosquitos, has exploded onto the world stage in recent weeks.

Most of the CDC travel alerts relate to places in the Americas. But two of the locations added to the list on Friday are farther afield — Cape Verde, a group of islands in the Atlantic, off the coast of Nigeria, and Samoa, a group of islands in the South Pacific.

Dr. Elena Savoia, of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, was relieved to see Cape Verde added to the list. When the CDC first advised pregnant women to avoid travel to 14 places with Zika outbreaks last week, she had questioned Cape Verde’s omission from the list. The islands have had Zika cases since last October, she told STAT.

The Boston area has strong ties to Cape Verde, with about 70,000 people from the islands living in New England, Savoia said. There is a twice-a-week direct flight from Providence, R.I., to the capital, Praia. Some women from Cape Verde come to the US to seek medical care and even deliver when they are pregnant, Savoia said.

In response to the growing concern about the Zika virus, the CDC announced last Friday that pregnant women should avoid travel to Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, and Venezuela.

Health officials urged women who might get pregnant to discuss travel plans with their doctors and appealed to all travelers to affected areas to try to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

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