The Zika virus is “spreading explosively” in the Americas, which could see up to 4 million cases over the next year, international health officials said Thursday, announcing a special meeting next week to decide if they should declare an international health emergency.
The warning from the World Health Organization came amid a call to arms by officials on both sides of the Atlantic over the mosquito-borne virus, which has been linked to a spike in a rare birth defect in Brazil.
Brazil’s president, noting there is no medical defense against the infection, called for a crusade against the mosquitoes spreading it. As long as we don’t have a vaccine against Zika virus, the war must be focused on exterminating the mosquito’s breeding areas.
The UN health agency called the special session in part to convey its concern about an illness that has sown fear among many would – be mothers. It may also have acted quickly because the agency was criticized for its slow response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
Meanwhile, US health officials said Thursday while they have not yet seen spread of the disease in the 50 states, the number of US travelers infected over the last year in the Caribbean or Latin America has climbed to 31.
For the average American who’s not traveling, this is not something they need to worry about. But for people who are pregnant and considering travel to the affected areas, please take this seriously. It’s very important for you to understand that we don’t know as much as we want to know about this yet.
In Geneva, WHO Director – General Dr Margaret Chan noted it had been less than a year since the virus arrived in the Americas, where it is now spreading explosively. Although there is no definitive proof that the Zika virus is behind the spike in brain defects in Brazil, the level of alarm is extremely high.
The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions. Researchers are also looking into a potential tie between Zika infections and cases of Guillain – Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis.
India has been free of this virus for over 60 years. However, the Union health ministry is procuring testing kits to detect the virus, which is spread by the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito – the same vector that spreads dengue and chicken guinea.
The same mosquito species spreading Zika in Latin America is also found in the southern United States. However, US health officials reiterated Thursday they don’t think the United States is vulnerable to a widespread outbreak of the Zika virus.
Declaring a global emergency is akin to an international SOS signal and usually brings more money and action to address an outbreakMarcos Espinal, WHO’s director of infectious diseases in the Americas region, said Brazil is conducting studies to determine if there is scientific evidence that Zika virus causes birth defects and neurological problems.
More than 4,000 suspected cases have been reported in Brazil since October. However, tests so far have shown hundreds of them were not microcephaly. Most infected people don’t get sick and those who do mostly suffer mild symptoms such as fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes.
Cooler weather tends to cut down mosquito populations. There is no treatment or vaccine for Zika, which is in the same family of viruses as dengue. Scientists have struggled for years to develop a dengue vaccine; the first such shot made by Sanofi Pasteur was licensed last year in Brazil.
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