Declaring that the Zika virus is “spreading explosively,” the World Health Organization announced it will hold an emergency meeting of independent experts Monday to decide if the outbreak should be declared an international health emergency.
At a special meeting Thursday in Geneva, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said the virus — which has been linked to birth defects and neurological problems — was becoming much more of a threat. One WHO scientist said the Americas could see up to 4 million cases of Zika in the next year.
Chan 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 infections and Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis.
“The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions. The increased incidence of microcephaly is particularly alarming, as it places a heart-breaking burden on families and communities,” Chan said.
The Zika virus was first detected in 1947 and for decades only caused mild disease, but Chan noted that “the situation today is dramatically different.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Zika virus is now in more than 20 countries, mostly in Central and South America. It is spread by the same mosquito that spreads dengue and yellow fever.
According to reports from the BBC, doctors have become overwhelmed in one city in northeast Brazil. Cases have skyrocketed from five cases in one year to 300 in the past six months.
Earlier this month, the CDC said pregnant women should consider postponing trips to more than a dozen countries with Zika and advised women trying to get pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant to speak to their doctor before traveling and to take extra precautions to avoid mosquito bites.