Latin American airlines offer Zika refunds


Santiago (AFP)

Two Latin American airlines, including the region's largest, will offer refunds to pregnant women booked for travel to areas infected with the Zika virus, blamed for causing severe birth defects, officials said Thursday.

Chilean-Brazilian airline Latam, the region's biggest, will refund or rebook expecting mothers with tickets to any of 22 countries or territories with outbreaks of the mosquito-borne virus, while Chilean company Sky will refund pregnant women with tickets to Brazil, the hardest-hit country.

The airlines join US carriers Delta and American Airlines in offering refunds for expecting mothers with flights booked to Latin America, where health officials say Zika is linked to a surge in babies born with microcephaly, or abnormally small heads.

Latam will allow pregnant women and their travel companions already in a Zika-infected area to advance their return dates free of charge, while those who have not yet started their trips will be allowed to request a refund or a destination change, paying only the difference in fare, it said Wednesday in a statement.

Sky, which flies to Brazil, Argentina and Peru, has adopted a similar policy for clients booked to Brazil, spokesman David Fuentes told AFP Thursday.

The announcements came as World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan warned Zika was spreading "explosively" in the Americas and the WHO said the region should expect three million to four million cases of the disease.

In Brazil, cases of microcephaly have surged from 163 a year on average to more than 3,718 suspected cases since the outbreak, according to the health ministry.

Fears that Zika is causing the potentially fatal birth defect have prompted Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica and Puerto Rico to warn women not to get pregnant, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised pregnant women against traveling to affected countries.