Bogota: Colombia announced Saturday that more than 2,000 pregnant women in the South American country have been infected with the Zika virus, which is suspected of causing brain damage in newborns.
The National Health Institute reported that Colombia now has 20,297 cases of Zika infection, including 2,116 in pregnant women.
The latest numbers, reported in the institute’s epidemiological bulletin, would make Colombia the second most affected country in the region, after Brazil.
Although the mosquito-borne virus’s symptoms are relatively mild, it is believed to be linked to a surge in cases of microcephaly, a devastating condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain.
Microcephaly is an untreatable disease that can cause permanent damage to the child’s motor and cognitive development.
The World Health Organization warned this week that the virus is “spreading explosively” in the Americas, with three million to four million cases expected this year.
Brazil has reported as many as 1.5 million cases of Zika infection. Since the outbreak was detected there last year, 3,718 cases of microcephaly have been reported, compared to an average 163 cases a year before that.
The National Health Institute said that 1,050 of Colombia’s Zika infection cases were confirmed by laboratory tests, 17,115 by clinical exams, and 2,132 were suspected cases.
Women have been the most affected in Colombia, accounting for 63.6 percent of the cases.
The government expects more than 600,000 people to become infected with the Zika virus in Colombia this year, and projects some 500 cases of microcephaly.
On Tuesday, Colombian authorities ordered hospitals in lower-lying areas to prepare for the spread of the disease, which is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
It also recommended that couples delay attempts to become pregnant for six to eight months.