GENEVA — The World Health Organization warns that Zika, the virus linked to abnormalities in newborn babies and neurological disorders, remains a major threat as the mosquito-borne disease continues to spread globally.
The WHO declared the Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern February 1. The mosquito-borne disease, detected in Brazil in 2015, has since spread to 67 other countries, 46 of which are experiencing their first Zika outbreak, and 14 of which have reported evidence of Zika transmission, according to a WHO report released recently. In all, WHO said, a total of 73 areas have been infected since 2007
WHO says Zika is endemic in parts of Africa and is active in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand, which in September reported its first confirmed cases of microcephaly linked to Zika, according to Reuters. Zika also is establishing itself in the Americas and the Caribbean.
Microcephaly is a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads. The WHO says 23 countries or territories have reported cases linked to Zika. Most of these cases, more than 2,000, are found in Brazil. In Africa, WHO said five suspected cases of microcephaly are being investigated in Guinea-Bissau.
In addition to microcephaly, WHO says 19 countries and territories have reported an increased incidence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that has also been linked to Zika.
Boris Pavlin, the WHO’s acting Zika virus incident manager, says in most situations Zika is a mild illness. But it can be quite severe, and a few people have died of it. He told VOA that WHO’s main focus is prevention of microcephaly and other birth complications.
“That is absolutely the reason that we are so concerned about this,” Pavlin said. “We have rarely seen a virus that spreads so far, so fast and has the potential to cause (such harm), yes rarely, but on such a large scale that it becomes a massive burden.”
In its first quarterly progress report, WHO says advances are being made in evaluating tools for more accurately and quickly diagnosing Zika. It says work is moving ahead in the development of vaccines against Zika, noting that two vaccines are in phase one clinical trials.
WHO says it will need $112.5 million through next year to carry out its many Zika-related activities, including research and development, prevention of Zika virus infections and care and support of vulnerable communities.