Colombia confirms first Zika-linked birth defects

Colombia has confirmed the first two cases of a rare birth defect associated with the spread of Zika virus.

The National Institute of Health on Thursday said that of the 33 cases of microcephaly reported in the country so far this year, two have been confirmed to be caused by the mosquito-borne virus. Another 15 cases remain under analysis while 16 cases have been ruled out for any relation to the virus.

The government agency said that one case was in Norte de Santander department near the border with Venezuela and the other in the lowland areas near the capital, Bogota. No other details were provided out of respect for the families' privacy.

Babies born with microcephaly have unusually small heads and an underdeveloped brain at birth. Children with the condition may face a broad spectrum of health issues, including lifelong intellectual disabilities.

Zika has been related to a surge in babies born with small heads in Brazil. Despite the virus' spread across Latin America, no cases of microcephaly have been discovered elsewhere in the region until now, except for one case involving a baby in Panama.

The announcement comes a day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that there's no doubt Zika can cause the birth defects. It's the first time in history a virus transmitted by mosquito bite has been found to cause birth defects.

Colombian authorities have been on the lookout for a rise in microcephaly ever since the epidemic hit Brazil last year. But authorities say the 33 cases of microcephaly reported in the country so far in 2016 don't represent a statistical aberration from previous years.

The CDC is recommending pregnant women avoid travel to areas where Zika virus is spreading. Because the virus can also be transmitted through sex, women and their partners who have traveled to the region are urged to abstain from sex or use latex condoms.