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Experts Talk About Local Zika Virus Threat

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The World Health Organization says it expects the Zika virus to spread to every country in the Western Hemisphere, except Canada.

The illness, spread by tropical mosquitoes, is believed to be linked to serious birth defects. As the virus emerges in tropical countries, doctors and researchers are working to learn more about the rapidly spreading mostquito-borne disease.

"Only about 1 in 5 people develop symptoms," said Elizabeth Schiffman with the Minnesota Department of Health. "For most people when they do develop symptoms, they're really quite mild. So fever, rash, maybe red eyes and sore joints."

The bigger concern is that Zika may be causing severe birth defects if women are infected while pregnant.

"The first thing that we noticed is that babies are being born at a higher rate with abnormally small heads," said Dr. Amanda Moen of the Gillette Children's Hospital.

Moen says they don't yet know what that will mean for these children as they age.

"There are other conditions that cause microcephaly," she said. "For those children, we know they are at a higher risk for difficulties with development. They might not walk or talk on time."

And Dr. Moen says there are cases of cerebral palsy and seizures.

Currently, there's no vaccine available for Zika virus, and experts say developing one typically takes years.

"We should definitely care in Minnesota, because a lot of the places where the virus is circulating right now -- in Central and South America, and the Caribbean -- are very popular vacation destinations for Minnesotans, especially around this time of year," Schiffman said. "For most people, it's a mild illness, but you still don't want to get sick."

Locally, the Minnesota Department of Health says at this point Zika virus can't be spread in Minnesota

"We have a lot of mosquitoes in Minnesota, but not this particular tropical kind," Schiffman said.

Some airlines Tuesday started offering refunds to passengers worried about the Zika virus. The CDC also added the U.S. Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic to the list of countries under its travel alert. You can see the full list here.

If you have to travel, the best way to avoid Zika is to wear mosquito repellent and protective gear -- this type of mosquito bites during the day, not just at dawn and dusk.

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