Pregnant women planning to travel south have been warned about the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that has spread to 20 countries in Central and South America and has been linked to birth defects. 

The Public Health Agency of Canada said "although the risk of virus establishment in Canada is low, there is ongoing risk to Canadians travelling to endemic regions."

For pregnant women with travel plans to affected zones, some airlines are allowing customers to change their reservations.

Transat, the Montreal-based tour operator, said they will "authorize, upon receipt of a medical note attesting of the pregnancy, requests for name, date or destination changes," for customers headed to an affected destination.

Air Canada has also said it has policies in place to "facilitate changes for customers who are pregnant and travelling to affected areas," and has urged customers to contact their medical desk for more details.

CBC Montreal's Homerun spoke with Dr. Caroline Quach, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the Montreal Children's Hospital, to find out more about the Zika virus' effects and risks to Quebecers.

How much of a concern is the Zika virus in Quebec?
li-mosquito-arm

Dr. Caroline Quach says Canada doesn't have the right type of mosquito to actually transmit the Zika virus. (James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Canadian Press)

Dr. Caroline Quach: If you're staying here, absolutely none. Canada doesn't have the right type of mosquito to actually transmit the disease, so if a traveller came back with the disease, it could not be transmitted to someone else through mosquito bites.

Who's most at risk?

Dr. Caroline Quach: The risk seems highest for pregnant women but mainly for their fetus to be born. 

Are there symptoms?

Dr. Caroline Quach: Most of us who are healthy will probably not have a lot of symptoms. Around 80 per cent of people will be asymptomatic, whereas approximately 20 per cent will develop a fever, red eyes or conjunctivitis, a rash, and some myalgia, and ankle and joint pain.

What are the risks to pregnant women?
Zika virus in pregnancy

A pregnant woman waits to be attended at the Maternal and Children's Hospital in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty)

Dr. Caroline Quach: What we know currently is that there has been an increase in the rate of microcephaly — infants born with smaller brains than normal — in Brazil where the epidemic has been at its highest. Currently there's no confirmed link between the infection and this microcephaly, or those anomalies. However, it is the most plausible explanation, but researchers are still currently working on this to try and really prove this, just to make sure that it's the only cause that's causing microcephaly.

Currently, what we're recommending and what we seem to know is that the infection is acquired during the first trimester of pregnancy [and] is most likely to lead to microcephaly and congenital anomaly.

Would you travel to the affected countries?
CDC map - Zika virus

This map from the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control shows countries and territories with active Zika virus transmission. (Provided/CDC)

Dr. Caroline Quach: I think it's an individual decision. I think if you're able to stay away from mosquitos and make sure that you don't have any bites, then it's fine. If I was in my first trimester of pregnancy, being risk averse, probably not, if I could do without.

But if you live in these areas, what you really need to do is make sure that you decrease the contact between yourself and day-biting mosquitoes. So wear long sleeves, long pants, and also decrease [contact with] all those stagnant waters where these mosquitoes breed — but this is easier said than done.

How can you protect yourself from the virus?
HEALTH-ZIKA GUATEMALA sterile Aedes aegyti mosquitoes Jan 26 2016

The forearm of a public health technician is seen covered with sterile female Aedes aegyti mosquitoes after leaving a recipient to cultivate larvae, in a research area to prevent the spread of Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in Guatemala City. (Josue Decavele/Reuters)

Dr. Caroline Quach: Try to wear insect repellent and do what you would do in the middle of June in a forest in Quebec. You should do the same when you travel to other countries.

What we're talking about in terms of repellents is more products that will keep the mosquitoes away. The problem is, of course, if you're pregnant, you also want to use something that is not teratogenic [any agent that can disturb the development of an embryo or fetus] ... so it's not an easy situation.

How can the Zika virus affect you if you're not pregnant?

Dr. Caroline Quach: If you're healthy, meaning that your immune system is working well, it seems to give you something that looks like a dengue fever but much milder symptoms. If you're symptomatic — a bit of fever, a bit of a rash and joint and muscle pains, but nothing more than that.

There doesn't seem to be death associated with it currently.