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Zika virus is 'spreading explosively' throughout the Americas, WHO says

The WHO will determine if the outbreak is an international health emergency

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The World Health Organization will convene an emergency committee meeting on Monday to discuss the Zika virus, a condition that is "spreading explosively" throughout the Americas, according to the WHO's director general, Margaret Chan. Health officials at the meeting will decide if the recent outbreak of the virus — which has been tentatively linked with a rise in birth defects — constitutes an international public health emergency.

More specifically, the purpose of the meeting is to determine what measures the WHO should take as well as the advice the organization should give to affected countries. The meeting will also establish how to proceed with researching the virus. “The level of alarm is extremely high,” said Chan at a speech in Geneva.

Zika virus is an illness spread via daytime mosquitos, and around 80 percent of the people who are infected don't experience symptoms. For the 20 percent who do, the condition is usually pretty mild, causing fever, rashes, joint pain, and conjunctivitis, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But recently, experts have been concerned that the Zika virus may be causing much more sinister health effects in newborn children.

The virus has been tentatively linked with a rise in birth defects

The virus first arrived in Brazil in May of 2015, and since then, as many as 1.5 million people have been infected. The outbreak has coincided with a steep increase in children being born with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly. Around 4,180 children have been born with the defect in Brazil since October 7th. At the same time, Brazil has also seen a worrisome increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome — a condition that can lead to partial paralysis. No causal relationship has been established between the Zika virus and these health issues, but health officials strongly suspect a link. The CDC is conducting a study in Brazil to see if the conditions are connected.

The Zika virus has since spread rapidly beyond Brazil into at least 22 surrounding countries and territories. So far, only 20 or so cases have been recorded in the United States. These cases were identified in travelers; no locally transmitted cases have been reported in the continental United States so far. That has prompted the CDC to issue travel alerts for the countries in which the disease is ongoing, recently adding the United States Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic to the list. The CDC has also advised that pregnant women or women who are trying to get pregnant postpone traveling to these areas.