The Zika virus, believed to be linked to the serious birth defect microcephaly, presents a “formidable” challenge that will be hard to stamp out, World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan warned Thursday.
Calling mosquito-borne Zika a “bigger menace” than any other recent major health scare in terms of its geographical spread, Chan said tough times lie ahead.
The situation “could get worse before it gets better,” she said in Rio de Janeiro after a fact-finding mission to Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika outbreak.
Ms Chan said part of the challenge in fighting the virus is that it is so “mysterious.”
Even the link to microcephaly remains not fully proven. “We are dealing with a tricky virus, full of uncertainties, so we should be prepared for surprises,” she said.
Ms Chan said that up to 46 countries have reported some level of evidence of Zika infections and that 130 countries are home to the Aedis aegypti mosquito that carries the virus, meaning the eventual spread could be enormous.
While vastly more lethal, the Ebola virus hit only nine countries, and the severe acute respiratory syndrome(SARS) affected 26 countries, she noted.
In nearly all Zika cases, symptoms are mild, resembling those of flu.
However, the growing belief that Zika can also trigger microcephaly in babies born to mothers infected while pregnant has spread international alarm.
Ms Chan said the WHO, Brazil and other governments in the region hosting the Aedis aegypti mosquito are working on the assumption of a link.
“Zika is guilty until proven innocent,” she said.
International health officials traveling with Chan described the Zika outbreak as especially scary because it is so poorly understood.
“You are dealing with an awful disease and awful consequences and awful uncertainty. We are learning as we go,” said Bruce Aylward, head of WHO’s outbreaks and emergencies department.
“You are dealing with a threat to the children of the country, to the future potentially, to the economy — and it takes an extraordinary response,” he said.
Meanwhile, Czech physicians have diagnosed the country’s first two cases of the Zika virus in tourists who returned from the Caribbean two weeks ago, the health minister said on Thursday.
“The first case is a man who stayed in Martinique, the other is a 49-year-old woman who stayed in the Dominican Republic,” Health Minister Svatopluk Nemecek told reporters.