The World Health Organization has called the spread of the Zika virus and its possible link to microcephaly an issue of public concern. The virus alone is not a clinically serious condition, the agency says.
Following a meeting of experts on Monday, WHO's Director General Margaret Chan announced that the Zika virus and microcephaly were a public health emergency.
The WHO tweeted this message:
Microcephaly is a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. Although no conclusive link between the virus and microcephaly has been found, WHO experts suspected a "causal relationship" between women infected by the virus during pregnancy and microcephaly.
"After a review of the evidence, the committee advised that the clusters of microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world," the WHO chief told journalists.
The agency expected up to four million cases of the infection next year in the Americas, but no restrictions were advised.
The agency is currently undertaking measures to control mosquito populations, the carriers of the virus. WHO officials advised pregnant women to delay travel to Zika-affected areas and protect themselves with mosquito repellents and long clothing. They also recommended that women bearing children have access to counseling.
The WHO declared a similar health emergency in August 2014, when Ebola broke out in West Africa. The announcement helped the WHO generate awareness and issue rules about the epidemic.
The Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in a forest in Uganda and is transmitted by the Aedis aegypti mosquito, which also transmits the chikungunya and dengue fever viruses. Symptoms of the virus include low fever, headaches, joint pains and rashes. In addition to microcephaly, the Zika virus has also been connected with a disease causing muscle weakness and nerve problems, called the Guillain-Barre syndrome.
mg/ng (dpa, AP, Reuters)