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Zika ‘spreading explosively’, up to four million cases expected: WHO

© Christophe Simon, AFP | A Brazilian couple tend to their two-month-old son, who suffers from microcephaly, a foetal deformation that causes infants to be born with abnormally small heads

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-01-29

The World Health Organization (WHO) expects the Zika virus to affect between three million and four million people, a disease expert said Thursday. WHO will decide Monday if the outbreak should be declared an international health emergency.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the spread of the mosquito-borne disease spreading through the Americas had gone from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions.

Chan said the virus - which has been linked to birth defects and neurological problems – was "spreading explosively."

Chan told WHO executive board members at a special meeting in Geneva. "As of today, cases have been reported in 23 countries and territories in the (Americas) region."

The organisation's will convene an emergency committee on Monday to help determine the level of the international response to the virus spreading from Brazil and to decide whether it should be declared an international health emergency.

'SOS'

Declaring a global emergency is akin to an international SOS signal and usually brings more money and action to address an outbreak. The last such emergency was announced over the 2014 devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa; polio was declared a similar emergency the year before.

How Zika virus spreads

Marcos Espinal, an infectious disease expert at the WHO's Americas regional office, said on Thursday, "We can expect 3 to 4 million cases of Zika virus disease". However, he did not give a time frame.

There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika, which is a close cousin of dengue and chikungunya and causes mild fever, rash and red eyes. An estimated 80 percent of people infected have no symptoms, making it difficult for pregnant women to know whether they have been infected.

‘No vaccine’

The WHO Director-General said although there was no definitive proof that the Zika virus was responsible for a spike in the number of babies being born with abnormally small heads in Brazil, "the level of alarm is extremely high." She also noted a possible relationship between Zika infection and Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis.

Chan cited four main reasons why WHO is "deeply concerned" about Zika: The possible link to birth defects and brain syndromes, the prospect of further spread, a lack of immunity in populations in the newly affected areas and the absence of vaccines, treatments or quick diagnostic tests for the virus.

Brazil's Health Ministry said in November 2015 that Zika was linked to a foetal deformation known as microcephaly, in which infants are born with abnormally small heads.

Brazil has reported 3,893 suspected cases of microcephaly, the WHO said last week, more than 30 times more than in any year since 2010 and equivalent to 1-2 percent of all newborns in the state of Pernambuco, one of the worst-hit areas.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2016-01-28

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