South American health ministers have held an emergency summit on combating the spread of the Zika virus. The outbreak now affects at least 25 countries and territories, most of them in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Wednesday meeting of ministers from 14 countries focused on ways to reduce the population of virus-carrying mosquitoes. But recent reports of a patient in the US catching the disease through sexual contact have fueled fears it will not be easily contained.
"This virus, which only recently arrived in Brazil and Latin America, no longer is a distant nightmare but a real threat to all Brazilians' homes," Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said said in a nationally televised address.
She offered "words of comfort" for the women who have given birth to babies with birth defects.
"We will do everything, absolutely everything, to protect you," Rousseff said.
Thousands of suspected cases
Since October, Brazil has reported 404 confirmed cases of microcephaly - up from 147 in 2014 - plus 3,670 suspected cases. The timing has fueled strong suspicions that Zika is causing the birth defect marked by deformed skulls.
The virus has also been linked to a potentially paralyzing nerve disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome in some patients.
Brazil isn't alone. Across Latin America, health officials are frantically searching for solutions and innovative ways to reduce the population of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the primary vector for the outbreak.
Sexual transmission possible?
Complicating matters, health authorities in the US state of Texas said this week that they had confirmed a case of the virus being transmitted by sexual contact.
"If that is confirmed, it will give a new dimension to the problem," said Carissa Etienne, head of the Pan American Health Organization,.
The World Health Organization has declared an international emergency and launched a global Zika virus response unit. Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica and the US territory of Puerto Rico have all warned women to avoid becoming pregnant.
Those infected usually show feverish symptoms and a rash. But it's the link to birth defects that makes the virus so serious.
Indian pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech said it was developing the world's first Zika vaccine and was ready to test it on animals.
jar/kms (AFP, Reuters)