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Zika Is ‘Spreading Explosively’ Across Americas

Costa Rica News – The World Health Organization said Thursday it will convene an emergency committee on the Zika virus, which is “spreading explosively” and suspected of causing birth defects.

zika virus costa rica mainThe meeting scheduled for Monday will examine whether the Zika outbreak should be classified as an international health emergency, WHO said in a statement.

WHO’s Director General Dr. Margaret Chan said the virus is “spreading explosively” in the Americas. “The level of alarm is extremely high,” she said.

Experts strongly suspect that Zika is causing a severe birth defect called microcephaly, in which babies’ brains are underdeveloped. It’s not certain yet, but evidence is building.

‘The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika, from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions,” Chan said in remarks to WHO’s executive board.

“The increased incidence of microcephaly is particularly alarming, as it places a heart-breaking burden on families and communities.” But WHO officials stressed there were still doubts about what might actually be causing the rise in microcephaly in Brazil and note a similar increase in cases has not been seen in other countries that have or have had Zika.

On Wednesday, two experts on international health matters accused Chan and WHO of acting far too slowly in raising the alarm about Zika.

At least 23 countries have local spread of Zika and WHO says the virus will likely eventually spread to almost every country in the Americas except Canada and Chile, which don’t have the mosquito species that transmits the virus.

WHO’s assistant director general, Dr. Bruce Aylward said the spread of the virus has not reached the highest level of alert for the organization. “Alarmed would not be the right language,” Aylward told reporters. “I think concerned would be the right language to use.”

Until last year, the virus had not been a major concern for health officials, causing mostly mild symptoms in around 20 percent of those infected.

“The situation today is dramatically different,” Chan said. “The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty… Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly.”

Zika is also suspected of causing other serious conditions, such as other brain damage to unborn babies besides microcephaly, as well as a paralyzing condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

There’s no treatment for Zika, which causes no symptoms in 80 percent of people who get it. There’s no vaccine, either. It wasn’t suspected of causing birth defects until Brazil raised the alert in November.

The virus is carried by the same Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry dengue and yellow fever viruses and is expected to spread everywhere those mosquitoes are found.

“Moreover, conditions associated with this year’s El Nino weather pattern are expected to increase mosquito populations greatly in many areas,” Chan said.

” Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly.”

by MAGGIE FOX and ALEXANDER SMITH, NBCNews.com

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