The World Health Organisation has declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus to be an international public health emergency, as the disease linked to thousands of birth defects in Brazil continues to spread rapidly.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told reporters on Monday an international coordinated response was needed, although restrictions on travel or trade were not necessary.
The emergency designation was recommended by a committee of independent experts to the United Nations agency following criticism of a hesitant response so far. The move should help fast-track international action and research priorities.
The WHO said last week the Zika virus was ‘spreading explosively’ and could infect as many as four million people in the Americas.
The agency was criticised for reacting too slowly to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa which killed more than 10,000 people, and has promised to do better in future global health crises.
The WHO’s International Health Regulations emergency committee brings together experts in epidemiology, public health and infectious diseases from the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Brazil has reported nearly 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly, in which infants are born with smaller-than-usual brains. The health ministry has linked the condition to Zika, although the connection is not yet definitive.
Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Castro told Reuters that the epidemic was worse than believed because in 80 per cent of the cases the infected people had no symptoms.
As the virus spreads from Brazil, other countries in the Americas are also likely to see cases of babies with Zika-linked birth defects, experts believe.
The Pan American Health Organisation says that Zika has now spread in 24 nations and territories in the Americas.
Meanwhile, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has authorised health officials to enter private properties by force if necessary in an effort to control the spread of the mosquito-borne virus Zika.
The presidential decree was published in the government’s official gazette on Monday and allows the forced entry by health officials into public and private properties if they have been abandoned or the owners are not present.
Officials are looking for breeding grounds for mosquitoes that can carry the virus, which has spread rapidly over the Americas and particularly in Brazil. The World Health Organisation is meeting on Monday to decide whether to declare a global emergency.
Zika is also suspected of having links to a rare condition known as Guillain-Barre, which can cause paralysis and death in extreme cases, in adults and children with compromised immune systems.