Federal health minister urges calm over Zika

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OTTAWA – Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott is trying to calm fears about the outbreak of the Zika virus after three cases of the illness were confirmed in Canada.

Philpott says Canadians are being advised to avoid travel to countries affected by the virus, which can cause neurological problems and birth defects.

But the minister notes that the Canadian cases all involve patients who recently travelled in affected areas, and says the breed of mosquitoes known to spread the virus is not found in Canada.

Canada is expected to attend an emergency meeting hosted by the United Nations on Monday where health officials hope to come up with a plan to stop the spread of the virus.

In the meantime, Canadian Blood Services will stop accepting blood donations from people returning from countries hit by the outbreak.

Philpott says it’s still unclear whether the virus has actually been spread through blood products, but promises more information on that likelihood will be made public once it’s available.

“At this point I don’t know that we’re in a position to validate those concerns,” Philpott said Thursday outside the House of Commons.

“I would stay tuned and I’ll give further information as soon as I have it.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada is constantly monitoring the situation and front-line health workers are being told to be on the lookout for people who may exhibit symptoms, said Philpott.

“We’re in communication with all stakeholders including health care providers to make sure that people are aware of the appropriate symptoms that might put in mind a possible diagnosis of Zika virus and that people are tested appropriately for that,” said the minister.

A decision on which countries will be linked to the ban on blood donations is expected in the next few days.

The World Health Organization says the virus is “spreading explosively.”

Air Canada says it plans to give refunds or allow passengers to change flights over concerns about the disease. As well, Air Transat says pregnant women with a medical note can reschedule or change destinations if they were booked to fly to countries that have been listed as having the virus.

5 things about Zika virus

The World Health Organization will hold an emergency meeting of independent experts Monday to decide if the Zika virus outbreak should be declared an international health emergency. Here are five things you should know about the virus:

WHAT IT IS: The Zika virus, named after a forest in Uganda where it was first identified in rhesus monkeys in 1947, is transmitted by two types of the day-biting Aedes mosquito, A. aegypti and A. albopictus.

WHERE IT’S FOUND: Cases of Zika have been reported in more than 20 countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean, as well as parts of Mexico, following its spread from Africa to Asia and the Pacific Islands. Brazil has been particularly hard hit. As many as 1.5 million Brazilians may have been infected with the Zika virus since its arrival in the country last spring.

WHO’S AT RISK: Most people infected by Zika virus do not get sick. Those who develop symptoms, including fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, recover within about a week. However, Zika virus has been linked to microcephaly in infants born to women infected while pregnant. Newborns with the birth defect have small heads and underdeveloped brains.

HOW IT’S TREATED: There is no effective antiviral drug to treat Zika infection and a vaccine to prevent the disease is estimated to take years to develop.

HOW TO AVOID IT: The Public Health Agency of Canada is advising pregnant women and those who plan to get pregnant to consider postponing travel to Zika-affected countries or regions unless absolutely necessary. If travel cannot be postponed, then strict mosquito-bite prevention measures should be followed, including wearing clothes that fully cover exposed skin and applying a mosquito repellent like DEET.

Canadian airlines adjust to Zika virus

MONTREAL – Three of Canada’s largest airlines are allowing passengers to change bookings to destinations in Central and South America as well as parts of the Caribbean amid concern over the Zika virus.

The move by the Canadian carriers comes after several global airlines, including United Airlines and American Airlines in the U.S., announced they were offering refunds to passengers concerned about the virus, believed capable of causing serious birth defects.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has warned pregnant women to take precautions against mosquito bites when travelling to areas in Central and South America where there have been Zika outbreaks.

Since Zika became endemic in Brazil last year, about 4,000 infants have been born with small heads and underdeveloped brains, a condition know as microcephaly.

WestJet says any passenger can change or cancel a booking prior to travelling to infected areas. No medical notes are required.

“We are not going to ask someone to prove they are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant,” spokeswoman Lauren Stewart wrote in an email.

The Calgary-based carrier said refunds will be given in the form of future travel credit.

The operator of Air Transat says pregnant passengers with a medical note and companions in their immediate family can reschedule or change destinations if they were booked to fly to countries that have been listed by the Pan American Health Organization as having the virus.

The company is not offering refunds and changes are only permitted for those staying in the same hotel room.

Air Canada is allowing woman and their travel companions to change bookings or receive a refund. The policy applies to those scheduled to travel on a flight operated by the carrier between Jan. 28 and June 26 with a ticket issued no later than Jan. 26.

The airline says customers will need to provide a doctor’s note that says they are at risk if travelling to Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadaloupe, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint-Martin, Suriname, U.S. Virgin Islands and Venezuela.

“The decision to provide a woman with a certificate that she should not travel is at the discretion of her health-care professional,” said Air Canada’s travel advisory.