The World Health Organization will convene an emergency committee in Geneva on Monday to discuss the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which the organization’s head said is spreading “explosively” and which many doctors and health officials believe is linked to an unprecedented outbreak of babies born with small heads in Brazil.
“The level of alarm is extremely high,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in remarks to the public-health agency’s executive board. “Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly.”
WHO’s announcement underscores the speed with which a virus that began as an obscure tropical malady afflicting Africa and then several remote Western Pacific islands has transformed into a major international health concern, particularly in the Americas.
The virus itself is usually mild, with only about one in five people who are infected developing symptoms such as a rash and fever. But it is the possible link to babies born with underdeveloped skulls and brains, a condition known as microcephaly, that is creating anxiety for governments and pregnant women across Latin America.
El Salvador’s government has asked women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018. In the U.S., some expectant mothers have canceled travel plans to the region.
More than 20 countries in the hemisphere, including Mexico, Panama, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, as well as the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have registered cases of Zika, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many are scrambling to contain the spread by taking steps like expanding mosquito spraying programs.
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