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Zika Virus Could Be Perfect Storm in Latin America

Brazil Fears Zika Could Affect Olympic Visitors
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VIDEO: The explosion of the mosquito-borne Zika virus in the Americas has put governments in the region on alert and prompted an all-out war on mosquitos in the region. VOA's Jeff Custer reports from Washington.

The Zika virus is spreading swiftly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“As of today, cases have been reported in 23 countries and territories in the region. The level of alarm is extremely high,” said Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organization.

The first cases were reported in Brazil last year. Since then, the virus has spread rapidly to most of the countries in the region.

Yet nobody was concerned at first.

“For more than 50 years we’ve known about this disease. But because of its low mortality and morbidity it didn’t become a priority. Today is different, and the struggle must be focused on preventing the proliferation of the mosquito,” said Jose Antonio Cisneros, former director for Clinical Information of Fetal Therapy at Jackson Health System in Miami, Florida.

A spike in newborns in Brazil suffering from microcephaly set off the alarm. The condition results in abnormally small heads and brains and can impact normal development. Since October, 2015, more than 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil.

“Of 100 people who are infected with Zika, 80 will not develop any symptoms and the other 20 will experience flu-like symptoms, nothing special. But in pregnant women who are infected with the Zika virus, the baby may develop microcephaly. That is the reason of concern,” said Dr. Elmer Huerta, a physician with vast experience in Latin America who frequently testifies on minority health issues before Congress. He practices at Washington Hospital Center in the U.S. capital.

So far, the WHO has not established a causal connection between Zika and birth malformations. Yet officials strongly suspect a link.

“The increased incidence of microcephaly is particularly alarming, as it places a heart-breaking burden on families and communities,” said Chan.

Millions could be infected

The WHO warns the Zika virus is spreading rapidly through the Americas and could affect as many as four million people.

Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Millions in Latin America cannot escape the presence of mosquitoes. Many of the poor live in areas near open water where mosquitoes breed. Those without running water use open cisterns and buckets. Many people are exposed to open sewage channels, and rain water puddles in dirt and crumbling roads. All make for perfect homes for mosquitoes.

“The ease with which the mosquito breeds, especially in stagnant water, makes the risk very large. Because it is moving so quickly, it could become an international emergency,” said Laura Freimanis, a senior epidemiologist at Westat.

Those concerns are growing ahead of millions of people traveling to Brazil for this year's Summer Olympics.

Perfect storm

There is no vaccine to protect against Zika. The mosquitoes that transmit the virus are resilient. Dr. Beth Bell, director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control, told VOA that the Aedes mosquitoes don’t need much water to breed. And the insects can thrive not just outdoors, but inside as well.

Globalization and international travel also promote the spread. A mosquito can bite someone who has the virus and then infect other people.

All these conditions amount to what many experts and Latin American government officials call a perfect storm.

“A major communication effort is needed to get the population to be committed to protect themselves from mosquito bites. Effective health policies also need to go into effect and we need the commitment of the authorities,” said Freimanis.