Zika emergency talks to take place

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An emergency meeting of the World Health Organization is being held to discuss the “explosive” spread of the Zika virus.

The meeting in Geneva will decide whether to declare a global emergency.

WHO officials have described Zika as moving “from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions”.

Most cases will have no symptoms but the virus has been linked to brain abnormalities in thousands of babies, mainly in South America.

Declaring a “public health emergency of international concern” would establish Zika as a serious global threat and lead to money, resources and scientific expertise being thrown at the problem both in South America and in laboratories around the world.

The WHO’s actions are under intense scrutiny after its handling of the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.

Its efforts to prevent the spread of the virus were widely criticised and it was deemed to have been too slow to declare an emergency.

More on the Zika crisis:

Up to 4 million Zika cases predicted

What you need to know

Zika ‘could become pandemic’

Video – How mums-to-be are tackling Zika

At the meeting, experts in disease control, virology and vaccine development will brief WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan.

Last week, she said: “The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty.

“Questions abound – we need to get some answers quickly.

Media captionThe mosquito-borne virus has been linked to babies being born with abnormally small heads.

“For all these reasons, I have decided to convene an emergency committee.

“I am asking the committee for advice on the appropriate level of international concern and for recommended measures that should be undertaken in affected countries and elsewhere.”

Since the mosquito-borne disease was first detected in Brazil in May 2015, the virus has spread to more than 20 countries.

The biggest concern is the surge in levels of microcephaly – babies born with abnormally small heads – and the rare nervous system disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome.

The link between the virus and these disorders has not been confirmed, but Dr Chan said it was “strongly suspected” and was “deeply alarming”.

And she warned the situation could yet deteriorate as “this year’s El Nino weather patterns are expected to increase mosquito populations greatly in many areas”.

Travel advice?

The WHO has already predicted that four million people could be infected with Zika in the Americas this year.

An announcement on whether Zika constitutes a global emergency is not expected until at least Tuesday.

The WHO could also make recommendations on travel to the affected countries, tracking the spread of Zika, best practice for treating patients or efforts to fast-track the development of vaccines and cures.

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