The first two cases of the Zika virus in the Republic of Ireland have been confirmed.
In completely unrelated cases, a man and a woman presented themselves with the virus. They are now well and fully recovered. It is believed they both recently returned to Ireland following travel in a Zika affected country.
“Both individuals have a history of travel to a Zika affected country. These are the first cases of Zika virus infection confirmed in Ireland,” said the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE).
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency on Monday and highlighted its concerns regarding the effects of the virus on pregnant women. The virus has been linked to thousands of suspected cases of babies born with underdeveloped brains in South America.
Neither of the cases in Ireland was at risk of pregnancy, the HSE confirmed.
"The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne infection, which isn't harmful in most cases,” said the HSE statement.
"However, it may be harmful for pregnancies, as it's been potentially linked to birth defects, specifically, abnormally small heads [microcephaly]."
The WHO reports that the vast majority of people who contract the Zika virus will only suffer mild symptoms, akin to a mild flu or a cold. Some may even have no symptoms at all. The infection is believed to last between two and seven days.
The discovery of the virus in Ireland is not unexpected as other European countries have also reported cases involving travel to Zika-infected areas.
“Zika virus is spread through the bite of a mosquito that is in certain countries but which is not present in Ireland,” stressed the HSE.
“If you become ill within two weeks after your return to Ireland from an affected area, you should contact your doctor for assessment and let him/her know of your recent travel history to an affected area.”
Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Dr. Kevin Kelleher, the Assistant National Director of Health Protection at the HSE, said that 75-80 percent of people will not be aware they have the virus.
Problems arise in South America, however, where women between the age of 15 and 45 are becoming exposed to the virus for the first time. The effects of the virus become evident if these women fall pregnant and countries such as Brazil and El Salvador have advised women to avoid pregnancy for at least the next year.
Almost all cases of the Zika virus thus far have been acquired via mosquito bites, although one case alleged to be sexually transmitted was reported in Texas. The risk of sexual transmission of the Zika virus is thought to be extremely low, according to WHO.
More cases are expected to appear in Ireland but most will not know they have the disease.
Pregnant women, or women who wish to get pregnant, are also being advised to carefully consider the risks of travel to a Zika-affected country. Irish tour operators including American Holidays, Travelmood and Falcon are allowing pregnant customers concerned about travel to affected countries to change their bookings.
Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, said: "While the risk is low in most cases, I would particularly urge pregnant women and women who are trying to become pregnant to consider postponing their travel to affected areas and to consult with their healthcare provider before travel.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs has changed its travel advice for 32 countries and territories in recent days as the virus spreads throughout Latin America. The WHO estimates there could be four million cases of the virus in the Americas in the next year.