zika virus.jpg
Photograph: EPA/MARECELO SAYAO

Brazil on Monday welcomed a decision by the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a public health emergency over the Zika virus.

The declaration clears the way for Brazil, the country most affected by Zika, to receive international assistance to counter the outbreak of the virus, Brazilian Ministry of Health said in a statement.

In Brazil there have been 3,448 suspected cases of microcephaly - a congenital condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads - and so far 270 of them have been confirmed. Six cases have been connected with the Zika virus.

The Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitoes, is thought to cause birth defects through mother-to-child transmission.

Brazil, where the outbreak started last year, has seen an increase in the number of abortions running parallel to reports about the spread of the virus, the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo reported.

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.

Colombia has seen the second-largest outbreak of the Zika virus. There have been about 20,000 cases there, including 2,116 of pregnant women through the end of January, Deputy Minister of Health Fernando Ruiz said, according to Radio Caracol. An estimated half a million Colombians are expected to be infected.

The virus has spread to all countries in Latin America except Chile, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba, the Pan-American Health Organization said.

The WHO earlier Monday said an uptick in the number of babies born with microcephaly, which is thought to be connected to the Zika virus, constituted a health emergency of international concern.

A WHO board of 18 medical experts and advisors sees a connection between the virus and a jump in the number of cases of babies born with microcephaly, chief Margaret Chan said in Geneva.

"The strong connection between Zika and microcephaly is enough to declare a public health emergency due to the heavy burden for the parents," Chan said.

The committee found no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of the virus, but pregnant women should take precautions.

"If [pregnant women] can avoid travel, then that's a measure ... If you have to travel, you can wear long sleeves, long pants and mosquito repellents."

The lack of vaccinations and rapid, reliable diagnostic testing, as well as an absence of population immunity in newly affected countries, are causes for concern, Chan said.

"All agree on the urgent need to coordinate international efforts," Chan said.

Experts agree that a causal relationship between the Zika virus during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, but not yet scientifically proven, Chan said.

The WHO 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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