The government of Colombia has gone to the extreme length of asking couples living in the country to avoid getting pregnant due to the growing threat of the Zika, a virus believed to cause a rare brain defect in babies called microcephaly.

“Considering the current phase of the epidemic and the existing risks, it is recommended to all couples in the country not to get pregnant during this phase, which could last until July 2016,” the Colombian Health Ministry said in a statement. 

The ministry also advised pregnant women to refrain to travel to higher areas. 

“For pregnant women who don’t live in areas below 2,200 meters [7,200 feet over sea level], try not to travel to those zones due to the high risk of contracting the infection, at least until the same date in the middle of the current year.”

Infants with microcephaly have smaller than normal heads and their brains do not develop properly. Many fetuses with the condition are miscarried, and many others die during birth or shortly after. Those who survive tend to suffer from developmental and health problems.

Jamaican authorities also are advising the country’s women to avoid becoming pregnant in the next six months to a year, as the mosquito-transmitted virus sweeps through South and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

The AP reports that although Jamaica has not seen any confirmed cases of Zika, the country’s health minister predicts that the virus, which has already spread to nearby Haiti, will affect Jamaica in due time.

There is no treatment or prophylaxis for the disease, which is similar to dengue fever.

In Brazil, Health Ministry officials said Wednesday that the suspected number of cases of microcephaly rose to 3,893.

Fewer than 150 cases of microcephaly were seen in the country in all of 2014. 

In a recent report, the National Institute of Health (NIH) said Colombia has at least 11,000 confirmed cases of Zika virus and nearly 2,000 suspected cases, most of them in the tourist Caribbean region. Of those, 459 are affected pregnant and 101 are under suspicion.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week advised pregnant women to Brazil and 13 other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The warning comes months ahead of the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games, which Rio de Janeiro is hosting, and some tourism professionals have voiced concern that it could scare visitors away.

Countries across the Western Hemisphere have been stepping fight against mosquitoes in recent years.

Scientists in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands have been experimenting with the release of genetically modified sterile mosquitoes to disrupt breeding. Fogging machines have become a common sight in many Latin American cities.

But the most effective way to combat the disease remains vigilance. Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Castro says he's on the lookout for potential breeding spots — places where water collects — when he heads out for his morning walk.

"My radar is always on. If I see a glass, a bottle or anything in the street I throw it in the trash," Castro said. "All of us need to act the same way, because if the mosquito comes to breed it's a terror."

With reporting by the Associated Press.

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