A disease linked to the Zika virus constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared.
The virus, which has been spreading fast in Latin America since the turn of the year, is believed to be linked to a rise in cases of microcephaly, a disease that causes babies to be born with underdeveloped brains.
The decision places the virus in the same category of concern as the Ebola virus, which became a public health emergency in 2014.
WHO director general, Margaret Chan called Zika an “extraordinary event” that needed a co-ordinated response.
“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014 constitutes a public health emergency of international concern,” she said.
The virus’s effects are mild and cause few or no symptoms in adults, but it is believed the bigger health threat concerns unborn children.
Thousands of babies across Latin America have been born with abnormally small heads and the WHO’s declaration will trigger research into these cases and the virus.
Currently, there is no vaccine or medication to stop Zika. The only way to avoid catching it is to avoid getting bitten by the Aedes mosquitoes that transmit the infection, reports the BBC.
The WHO has already warned that Zika is likely to “spread explosively” across nearly all of the Americas. More than 20 countries, including Brazil, are reporting cases.
Chan also spoke out against a travel ban to the affected areas.
“A knee-jerk response would be to ban travel and trade with countries affected, but the truth is that the potential problem is much wider,” said Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at Nottingham University. He told The Guardian: “It wouldn’t really be feasible to lock down the affected countries to try to stop the spread of a virus that is carried by the Aedes mosquito, especially when affected and unaffected countries border one another.”
The Brazilian government welcomed the WHO’s declaration but said it would take researchers years to develop a vaccine.
“If we are really lucky, it could be three years, but it could be between three and five years,” a spokesman told reporters.