President Obama called for urgent action and research Tuesday over concerns of the spread of the Zika virus. The virus is now active in much of South and Central America, and has spread north rapidly, even reaching the U.S. where there are at least six confirmed cases.

And today, officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the Zika virus was “spreading explosively” in the Americas and that they would convene an emergency meeting on Monday to decide whether to declare a public health emergency.

Zika virus was first reported in May 2015. Since then, it has spread to much of South and Central America. Photo credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“The level of alarm is extremely high,” Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the WHO, said in a speech in Geneva.

Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri, a unit chief for the Pan American Health Organization, said as many as three to four million people in the Americas could be exposed to the virus in the next 12 months.

“As I told you, we have big gaps in terms of confirmation of the real situation,” he said. “These are estimates. These are mathematical estimations.”

Dr. Chan, in a brief to the executive board of WHO, shared four main reasons why the organization needs to be deeply concerned about this rapidly evolving situation:

  • the possible association of infection with birth malformations and neurological syndromes
  • the potential for further international spread given the wide geographical distribution of the mosquito vector
  • the lack of population immunity in newly affected areas
  • and the absence of vaccines, specific treatments and rapid diagnostic tests.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prior to 2015, outbreaks of Zika had occurred in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. But in May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization reported the first confirmed Zika case in Brazil.

Currently, there is no vaccine for the virus, which is transmitted by mosquitos. The illness is mild, in most cases, "with symptoms showing in one out of five people, and death being a rare occurrence," The Big Think explained. However, the virus is "particularly dangerous for pregnant women, as it can cause serious birth defects in babies, including a condition called microcephaly, in which babies are born with small heads and under-developed brains," NPR's Here & Now reported.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans, particularly women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, to avoid travel or take precautions in the nearly two dozen countries with the Zika virus.

Officials in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Jamaica and El Salvador are advising women to avoid pregnancy until the outbreak has passed. The Brazilian government even enlisted 220,000 members of the military to go door-to-door to help eradicate mosquitos.

Zika is the fourth mosquito-borne disease to creep up the Western Hemisphere in the last 20 years (the others being dengue fever, West Nile virus and chikungunya), according to a report published earlier this month in The New England Journal of Medicine.

In The Guardian earlier this week, author and environmental activist Bill McKibben blamed climate change for "inexorably" expanding mosquitoes' range. He said the virus "foreshadows our dystopian climate future," arguing "a civilization where one can’t safely have a baby is barely a civilization."

On Wednesday, Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson spoke with Helen Branswell, who covers infectious diseases and public health for STAT, a national health and medicine publication, about what is known and not yet known about Zika, and what people can do to protect themselves.

Listen here:

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