The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set up an emergency taskforce to respond to the Zika virus as experts warn the disease has “explosive pandemic potential”.
The mosquito-borne virus isn’t harmful to most people, but it has been linked to severe birth defects in babies. Women in affected areas have been urged to delay pregnancy until further notice.
The outbreak has spread to at least 23 countries in Latin America, with the WHO warning up to four million people could be infected this year. There is currently no known cure or vaccine.
“The level of alarm is extremely high,” WHO director general Margaret Chan told a specially convened meeting in Geneva. “[It has gone] from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions.”
Dr Carissa Etienne, the regional director for WHO’s Pan American Health Organization, cautioned that the link between Zika and microcephaly in babies has not yet been confirmed, the BBC reports.
But she added: “We cannot tolerate the prospect of more babies being born with neurological and other malformations and more people facing the threat of paralysis.”
The committee will convene on Monday to discuss whether or not to declare a global emergency. The last time this happened was in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The global health body has since faced widespread criticism for failing to respond soon enough to the crisis.