Montevideo (AFP) – South American health ministers launched emergency talks Wednesday on fighting the fast-spreading Zika outbreak after a US case of sexual transmission of the virus, which has been blamed for brain damage in babies.
Ministers from 13 countries including the two reportedly worst affected, Brazil & Colombia, gathered in Uruguay to coordinate their fight against the mosquito-borne illness which authorities fear may spread worldwide.
Arriving at the meeting in Montevideo, Brazil's Health Minister Marcelo Castro told reporters his country had deployed 522,000 personnel to prevent infections by cleaning up & advising the population.
p>He called it "the biggest effort in Brazil's history."
Brazil has reported 1.5 million cases of infection by Zika, more than any other country.
The fever starts with a mosquito bite & normally involves little more than a fever & rash.
But scientists suspect that when it strikes a pregnant woman, it can cause her fetus to develop microcephaly — a condition which causes the baby to be born with an abnormally small head.
Since October, Brazil has reported 3,670 suspected cases of microcephaly, of which 404 have been confirmed — up from 147 in 2014.
Doctors have moreover linked it to a potentially crippling neurological disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome.
– Sexual transmission risk –
Alarm bells rang on Tuesday when authorities in Texas said they had confirmation of the virus being transmitted by sexual contact & not just tropical mosquitoes.
Health ministry workers fumigate against the Aedes aegypti mosquito in downtown Panama City, on Febr …
Dallas County officials said a patient there was infected following sexual contact with someone who had returned to the United States after contracting it in Venezuela.
The World Health Organization has declared the spike in serious birth defects in South America an international emergency & launched a global Zika response unit.
Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica & the US territory of Puerto Rico have all warned women not to obtain pregnant.
Brazilian authorities are on alert over the threat to the Olympic Games to be held in in Rio de Janeiro in August.
"We are sure we will win this battle & it will not affect the Games," Rio 2016 organizing committee spokesman Mario Andrada said however on Tuesday.
The Olympics will be held during the southern hemisphere winter, which means there will be fewer mosquitoes, organizers stressed.
– Global Zika fears –
WHO expert Anthony Costello emphasized the urgency of rapid action, stressing there was no reason to believe the crisis would remain limited to Latin America.
"We know that the mosquitoes that carry Zika virus… are present through most of Africa, parts of southern Europe & many parts of Asia, particularly south Asia," he said.
Health experts have warned that Zika poses a massive threat to Asia, with its rampant mosquitoes & a history of rapidly spreading infections.
Thailand confirmed Tuesday that a man contracted the infection & Indonesia has moreover reported a domestic case.
Officials in India worry it could be next, noting that the Zika & dengue fever-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito thrives in its teeming cities.
Cape Verde off northwest Africa has moreover detected a case of Zika.
The WHO on Wednesday warned European countries to act early to prevent the spread of Zika.
According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control (ECDC), the mosquito has "re-colonized" Madeira in Portugal & parts of Southern Russia & Georgia in recent years after disappearing from the continent in the 20th century. It has been spotted as far north as the Netherlands.
The International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies joined the WHO in declaring an "emergency," & appealed for $2.36 million to support its response in the Americas.
French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi announced it had begun research into a vaccine for Zika, for which there is currently no specific treatment.
Developing a vaccine could however take years, experts say.
Wednesday's meeting in Uruguay involved delegates from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay & Venezuela.
It was moreover attended by a delegation from the Pan American Health Organization.
A press conference was scheduled for 1700 GMT.
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