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Photograph: EPA/Oscar Rivera

South Korea said Tuesday it would adopt measures to avoid the possible spread of the Zika virus, which was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization.

"Health authorities must be fully prepared to counter the Zika virus," Health Minister Chung Chin Youb said at an emergency meeting in Seoul.

With no cases in the country so far, foreign visitors will be carefully monitored, she said.

South Korea faced criticism last year for its slow reaction to an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, which went on to kill 38 people.

An uptick in the number of babies born in Latin America with abnormally small heads, which is thought to be connected to the Zika virus, constituted a health emergency of international concern, the UN's World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday.

The latest outbreak is centred on Central and South America, but there are fears it could spread to tropical parts of Asia, where diseases like dengue, carried by the same species of mosquito, are prevalent.

A man who had travelled from Thailand was hospitalized in Taiwan earlier this month after contracting the disease.

A senior official at Malaysia's Health Ministry said Friday that Zika had not yet been detected, but that "if it is introduced by an infected Malaysian or by a visitor to Malaysia, it could spread quickly."

"We should always be on guard because it's happening in other countries and it can also happen here,” Philippine Health Department spokesman Lyndon Lee Suy said the same day.

The WHO said in Brazil there may have been 1.5 million cases of Zika virus and that the number of cases in the Americas could grow to 4 million within 12 months.

The UN body last declared an international health emergency in August 2014 with West Africa's Ebola outbreak, allowing the organization to issue rules to combat the epidemic.

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