26/01/2016 15:15 GMT | Updated 26/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Zika Virus Symptoms Alert Issued To UK Health Workers

Health workers have been urged to look out for symptoms of the Zika virus in patients returning to the UK from countries affected by the outbreak.

Officials said that health professionals should consider the virus as a potential diagnosis of patients suffering from fever after returning from the Americas.

There is an unprecedented outbreak of the virus in Brazil and health experts have warned that it is likely it could spread to nearly all of the Americas.

The virus - which causes symptoms including rash, fever, conjunctivitis and headache – has been linked to birth defects in children born to mothers infected while they are pregnant.

Public Health England's (PHE) latest Health Protection Report states: "Health professionals should consider Zika virus among the differential diagnoses of patients with fever returning from the Americas.

"If a case of Zika virus is suspected, appropriate samples for testing (together with a full travel and clinical history with relevant dates) should be sent as early as possible to the PHE Rare and Imported Pathogens Laboratory.

"Health professionals should also be vigilant for any increase of neurological and autoimmune syndromes (in adults and children), or congenital malformations in new born infants (where the cause is not otherwise evident) in patients with a history of travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is known to occur."

Around 4,000 babies born to mothers infected with the Zika virus in Brazil have been born with microcephaly - a condition where the child has an underdeveloped brain.

Travel advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre urges pregnant women to reconsider travel to areas where the outbreak has been reported.

Yesterday, the World Health Organisation said that the virus is likely to spread across nearly all of the Americas apart from Canada and Chile.

The virus has already been found in 21 countries: Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname and Venezuela.

There is no treatment or vaccine and many South American countries have called on women to consider the implications of the infection before getting pregnant.

Meanwhile many pregnant Britons planning trips to affected areas will be reconsidering their travel plans because of risks posed to their unborn children.

Emma Preston, 28, cancelled a business trip at the last minute after heeding travel warnings about the virus.

Mrs Preston, from south-west London, was travelling to Cartagena, Colombia, on January 23 but decided not to go on the trip which had been planned for several months.

The conference producer, who is 14 weeks pregnant, said: "I'm really disappointed that I wasn't able to go to Cartagena, but I thought it was better to be safe than sorry in terms of the virus.

"The more I read about it in the news the better I feel about my decision not to go. It wasn't worth the risk."

A spokeswoman from UK travel organisation Abta said women reconsidering their plans would be able to get a medical certificate from their family doctor in order to claim on insurance.

"This new advice highlights just how important it is to check Foreign Office advice and the need to purchase travel insurance before booking your travel arrangements," she added.