Zika could infect four million with 'explosive' spread through Americas
The Zika virus is "spreading explosively" and could affect as many as four million people in the Americas, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said yesterday.
After almost 4,000 infections were recorded in Brazil, Dr Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, said the virus posed a threat of "alarming proportions", with new cases reported in 23 countries in South America and elsewhere. "It is now spreading explosively," she said. "The level of alarm is extremely high."
The Zika virus was discovered in 1947 in a rhesus monkey in Uganda. For decades, it lay dormant or infected only primates in the equatorial belt of Africa. However, the virus now is evolving rapidly.
A WHO forecast said that between three and four million people could be infected this year.
Dr Chan said that an emergency meeting of the international health regulations committee would take place in Geneva on Monday. The aim will be to offer "advice on the appropriate level of international concern" and the best "recommended measures" for affected countries.
The spread of the virus in Brazil has coincided with a sharp increase in the birth of babies with microcephaly - having abnormally small heads.
Dr Chan said that a "causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth malformations" had not been established with certainty, but was "strongly suspected".
These "possible links" had "rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions", added Dr Chan. The increase in birth defects was placing a "heart-breaking burden on families and communities".
Last year, WHO was criticised for reacting too slowly to West Africa's Ebola epidemic, which killed more than 10,000 people, and promised to cut its response time.
"We are not going to wait for the science to tell us there is a link (with birth defects). We need to take actions now," Dr Chan said.
The Aedes aegypti species of mosquito is known to be responsible for spreading the virus and Brazilian researchers are examining whether more common varieties of the insect could also be contributing to the rising number of cases of infection.
WHO said that any country with large populations of the Aedes aegypti mosquito was potentially vulnerable. This includes China, which should now be looking out for infections, it said. Dr Chan pointed out that the El Nino weather phenomenon was allowing mosquitoes to multiply in different parts of the world.
Scientists have written in the 'Journal of the American Medical Association' that the Zika virus has "explosive pandemic potential", noting that outbreaks have been recorded in Africa, South East Asia, the Pacific Islands and the Americas. Five cases have already occurred in Britain, all among people who had recently travelled to South America.
The scientists said that most countries, especially in the developing world, had failed to adopt international health regulations to the required standard.
The best course would be for governments to invest in developing a vaccine, but this would take between three and 10 years "even with accelerated research", they said.
There is no treatment for Zika, which is like dengue and causes mild fever, rash and red eyes. An estimated 80pc of people infected have no symptoms
Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will advise all national Olympic bodies on how to deal with the Zika virus ahead of the games next August in Rio de Janeiro.
IOC president Thomas Bach said the committee was in "close contact" with Brazilian authorities and WHO. The IOC would send advice this week to all national Olympic committees. He added the fact the Olympics will take place in August, during Brazil's winter, could mitigate the impact of the Zika outbreak.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)