The World Health Organization (WHO) declared an international emergency at a Feb. 1 meeting over the Zika virus outbreak in Latin America.
The virus, which is spread by mosquitos, has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect which leaves infants with smaller heads and developmental issues, BBC reported.
“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014 constitutes a public health emergency of international concern,” WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan said, according to BBC.
This means Zika is considered as dangerous as Ebola, which claimed thousands of lives, mainly in African countries. The WHO was criticized for taking several months to declare an emergency during the Ebola outbreak.
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The declaration of an emergency means that more resources will be made available to study the disease. There is not yet a vaccine against Zika, meaning that the only way to combat it is to avoid being bitten by the mosquitos carrying the virus.
The symptoms of Zika are usually mild, although it can occasionally result in a condition causing paralysis.
Chan provided advice to pregnant women on the steps they should take to avoid the virus. She said they should consider postponing travel to Zika-affected areas, and if they reside in areas impacted by the virus, they should seek advice from a physician and always wear mosquito repellant.
The WHO’s decision came as Dallas County, Texas, officials reported the first locally-transmitted case of Zika in the U.S. The individual was infected by having sexual intercourse with someone who recently returned from a country where Zika is circulating.
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“Now that we know Zika virus can be transferred through sex, this increases our awareness campaign in educating the public about protecting themselves and others,” Dallas County Health and Human Services director Zachary Thompson told the Houston Chronicle. “Next to abstinence, condoms are the best prevention method against any sexually transmitted infections.”
More than 20 countries have reported Zika cases, and the WHO anticipates the virus will expand throughout the entire Americas.