The World Health Organisation has declared a public health emergency due to the suspected link of the Zika virus to a surge in serious birth defects in South America.
WHO chief Margaret Chan said the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly was “strongly suspected but not yet scientifically proven.”
The UN health agency warned last week that the mosquito-borne virus was “spreading explosively” in the Americas, with up to 4 million cases expected in the region this year.
Although the mosquito-borne virus’s symptoms are relatively mild, it is believed to be linked to a surge in cases of microcephaly, a condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain.
Brazil, the hardest hit country, sounded the alarm in October, when a rash of microcephaly cases emerged in the north-east.
Since then, there have been 270 confirmed cases of microcephaly and 3,448 suspected cases, up from 147 in 2014.
There is currently no treatment for the Zika virus, and the WHO has said it would likely take more than a year to develop a vaccine.
The virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads dengue fever and the chikungunya virus. It produces flu-like symptoms including a low-grade fever, headaches, joint pain and rashes.
The WHO has so far refrained from issuing travel warnings related to Zika, stressing that the most effective form of prevention is getting rid of stagnant water where mosquitos easily breed, and personal protection against mosquito bites such as using repellant and sleeping under mosquito nets.
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