By Sabrina Tavernise | Officials from the World Health Organization said on Thursday that the Zika virus was “spreading explosively” in the Americas and announced that they would convene an emergency meeting on Monday to decide whether to declare a public health emergency.
“The level of alarm is extremely high,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the W.H.O., in a speech in Geneva.
Of particular concern, Dr. Chan said, are the cases of microcephaly, a rare condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads that has been rising dramatically in Brazil as Zika spreads. Experts say it is too early to tell whether Zika is the cause of the condition, but there are some indications that the two are linked.
The health authorities in Brazil said on Wednesday that reported cases of microcephaly had climbed to 4,180 since October, a 7 percent increase from the previous tally last week.
Before the epidemic, Brazil recorded only about 150 cases of microcephaly a year. That has caused widespread alarm because researchers say the virus arrived in Brazil only recently, with the huge jump in microcephaly cases reported by doctors, hospitals and other medical officials following closely in its wake.
But proving that Zika is the cause has been elusive. The Brazilian health ministry says it has examined more than 700 reported cases of microcephaly and found Zika in only six of the infants — though what that means exactly is unclear.
Infectious disease specialists caution that Brazil’s testing methods are outdated and may miss many Zika cases. They also say that in some cases, the mother may have had Zika, causing microcephaly in her baby, even if the virus is never detected in the infant.
The virus has spread to more than 20 countries and territories in the region. Dr. Chan said she was “deeply concerned about this rapidly evolving situation.” She also raised an alarm about the potential for further international spread of the virus, given how ubiquitous the mosquitoes that carry it are and how few people have developed immunity to it. The virus, which first surfaced in Uganda in the 1940s, had rarely been seen in the Americas.
“The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty,” she said. “Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly.”
According to Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri, a unit chief for the Pan American Health Organization, there could be as many as 3 to 4 million people in the Americas exposed to Zika in the next 12 months, based on the rate at which the dengue illness has spread.
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