Mosquito precautions

A health worker shows a flyer to explain to people how to prevent mosquito-borne dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

Colombia and Venezuela are both reporting a jump in cases of a rare, sometimes paralyzing syndrome that may be linked to the Zika virus.

Colombian Deputy Health Minister Fernando Ruiz said Friday that his country has recorded 41 cases of Guillain-Barré​ syndrome that appear to be linked to Zika infections. It had detected 12 such cases a week ago.

Colombia has said it had about 16,500 suspected cases of Zika, though only a small fraction have been confirmed by laboratory tests.

The mosquito-borne virus is spreading rapidly in the region after being detected last year in Brazil. Investigators are scrambling to determine if the surge is related to seeming increases of the rare birth defect known as microcephaly, which results in babies being born with abnormally small heads, and of Guillain-Barré, which can leave patients temporarily paralyzed.

Venezuelan Health Minister Luisana Melo said Friday that her country has recorded 255 cases of Guillain-Barré, apparently as part of its effort to fight Zika, though she did not specify the link or the time frame.

Former Health Minister Jose Oletta said that figure indicates the number of suspected Zika cases in Venezuela is far more than the government's estimate of roughly 4,500. He has estimated Venezuela could have 400,000 cases.

"Normally, we'd expect 30 or 40 cases of Guillain-Barré a month," said Oletta, who now works with the Network to Defend National Epidemiology. "What this shows is that the minister has the total number of Zika cases wrong."

Zika outbreaks have been reported in several Latin American and Caribbean countries, raising concerns elsewhere about travellers becoming infected.

Dr. Israel Cedeno, head of epidemiology for Panama's health ministry, said that 50 cases had been confirmed in the country, up from 42 cases reported on Tuesday. Of these, one is pregnant and started to feel symptoms around 28 weeks into the pregnancy, he said. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said Friday that he doesn't think U.S. airports need to screen travellers arriving from nations with Zika cases. He said the disease is spread by mosquitoes and is not transmitted from one person to another.

Speaking in Washington, Fauci said the U.S. government is taking the virus "very seriously" and preparing in case it should spread to the United States. He said Americans should not "get overly panicked" since there have been no transmissions of the disease in the U.S.

With files from Reuters