Two adults in Ireland have been infected with the zika virus, the HSE has confirmed.
Both of the unrelated cases were adults who had recently travelled to countries infected by the virus and neither were at risk of pregnancy, the HSE said in a statement.
Both are understood to have fully recovered. The HSE added that discovering cases in Ireland was “not unexpected”.
The zika virus, which originated in Africa and is transmitted by mosquito, arrived in the Americas last year and spread rapidly, with active transmission of the virus reported in 25 countries.
In South America, concerns about its possible side-effects threaten to cast a shadow over the Rio Olympics this summer.
Although the virus is generally harmless, often presenting few or no symptoms, there is widespread concern about its effect on pregnant women. Concerns have been raised that the virus could induce a birth defect called microcephaly, in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain.
The World Health Organisation has described the outbreak of the virus in South America as a “threat of alarming proportions” and said that up to four million people could be infected.
Pregnant Irish women were warned last week by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre not to travel to areas affected by the virus. Men visiting the areas were told to use condoms for six months after their return.
Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs has issued warnings for 20 countries including Brazil, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Barbados and Colombia.
The virus is spread by Aedes mosquitoes, which also spread dengue and yellow fever.
For most people, symptoms of the virus are mild, including a fever, headache, conjunctivitis (red eyes), rash, and joint, muscle or eye pain. About 80 per cent of those affected will not know they have the virus, which can be spread during sex.
Billy Kelleher, the Fianna Fail health spokesman, has called on Leo Varadkar, the health minister, to prepare for cases in Ireland.
“I am urging Mr Varadkar to engage with his European counterparts and EU authorities and outline the contingency public health response that government is putting in place to reassure the public,” Mr Kelleher said.
“There is clearly a role for Mr Varadkar, the HSE and the chief medical officer to detail what preparations Ireland has made in light of the rapid spread of this virus and the severity of its impact. We need to be prepared and highly vigilant without being alarmist in our response to this public health issue.”
The WHO has created a global unit to respond to the zika virus and voiced fears that the disease could spread across Africa and Asia. The body is under pressure to move swiftly to tackle zika after admitting it was slow to respond to the recent ebola outbreak that ravaged parts of west Africa.
Anthony Costello, a director of maternal health at the WHO, told reporters in Geneva that the new response unit would aim to use “all the lessons we’ve learned from the ebola crisis” quickly to address zika and the birth defects and neurological conditions it was believed to cause.
He emphasised the need for rapid action and stressed that there was no reason to believe that the crisis would remain limited to South America.