The Zika virus could be more dangerous in pregnant women than first feared, Brazilian scientists have warned.
Experts are now linking it to several neurological conditions – in addition to microcephaly, where babies are born with abnormally small heads.
Dr Renato Sa, an obstetrician and foetal medicine specialist, said he believes babies in up to a fifth of pregnant women with the virus could be affected.
‘The expectation is that a woman who has had Zika has a one per cent chance of having a baby with microcephaly,’ he told the BBC.
‘But if we consider a range of other possible neurological conditions, that figure rises to about 20 per cent.’
The virus has long been linked to babies being born with microcephaly – a disease characterised by unusually small heads and developmental problems.
It has also been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome – a nerve disorder that causes temporary muscle paralysis.
Previous estimates have suggested one per cent of women who have had Zika during pregnancy will have a child with microcephaly.
But a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, said 29 per cent of scans showed abnormalities in babies in the womb, including growth restrictions, in women infected with Zika.
It comes after experts Europe should brace itself for the arrival of the Zika because mosquitoes carrying the virus will flock to the continent as summer arrives.
Despite a decline in cases in Brazil, there is the potential for a ‘marked increase’ in Zika infections as the virus spreads to new parts of the world, according to the United Nations’ health agency.
Until now Zika has been largely contained to Latin America and the Caribbean – but as summer arrives in the northern hemisphere the mosquitoes that carry the disease will travel to Europe.
Marie-Paule Kieny, the World Health Organisation’s assistant director general, said: ‘As seasonal temperatures begin to rise in Europe, two species of Aedes mosquito which we know transmit the virus will begin to circulate.
‘The mosquito knows no borders.’
There is also a risk men infected with Zika could pass the disease on to women via sex, and the world ‘could see a marked increase in the number of people with Zika and related complications,’ Ms Kieny said.