Haiti, Ecuador and Brazil have announced that they have been hit by an outbreak of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne ailment that causes birth defects and is rapidly spreading through Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Zika virus is transmitted by Aedes species mosquitoes, which also spread dengue and chikungunya viruses. Zika causes a mild illness with fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis, with symptoms usually lasting under a week.

But in pregnant women, the virus can spread to the fetus and cause brain shrinkage - a rare condition called microcephaly that severely limits a child's intellectual and physical development - or death.

Brazil has been the hardest hit, documenting more than 3,500 cases of microcephaly between October 2015 and January 2016.

Four of those cases have recently been analysed, showing that babies were infected with the Zika virus while they were in the womb and that it reached their brains.

Two of the cases involved miscarriages, and two of the babies died soon after birth. The Brazilian government said on Saturday it was directing funds to a biomedical research centre to help develop a vaccine against the virus.

Ecuador confirms cases

Ecuador said on Friday it has detected two new cases of the Zika virus in the country. Officials had previously detected four people who arrived from other countries with the disease. But this is the first time it has been transmitted on Ecuadorian soil, said Veronica Espinosa, deputy cabinet minister responsible for monitoring outbreaks.

"We have now detected, confirmed by laboratory tests, the first two native cases. That is, we now have cases of the virus being transmitted by mosquito bites that happened in Ecuadoran territory," she told a press conference.

First Haiti detection

Also on Friday, Haiti's Public Health Minister Florence Duperval Guillaume said there have been five confirmed cases of the Zika virus in the country. All the cases are in the area of Port-au-Prince, the overcrowded capital.

The United States on Friday warned pregnant women to avoid travel to 14 countries and territories in the Caribbean and Latin America due to the virus.

The level two travel alert applies to Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

Source: Agencies