The World Health Organization rang a global alarm over the Zika virus on Thursday, saying that the disease was “spreading explosively” in the Americas and that as many as four million people could be infected by the end of the year.
The global health agency will convene a special meeting on Monday to decide whether to declare a public health emergency. It is moving swiftly to combat this outbreak after widespread criticism that it had allowed the last major global health crisis, Ebola, to fester without a coordinated, effective strategy.
Since last spring, more than 20 countries have reported locally acquired cases of Zika, which is transmitted by mosquitoes and may cause birth defects.
“The level of alarm is extremely high,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the W.H.O., in a speech in Geneva.
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The focus of concern is the growing number of cases of microcephaly, a rare condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and damaged brains. Reports of babies born with microcephaly have been rising sharply in Brazil as Zika spreads.
Experts say it is too early to tell whether Zika is the cause of the condition, but there are indications that the two are linked. The government of El Salvador has gone so far as to advise women to refrain from becoming pregnant until 2018.
Even as international health authorities sounded strong warnings, health officials in the United States sought to reassure Americans, saying that the vast majority of those exposed to the virus never have symptoms and that the risk of a homegrown outbreak is very low, largely because of more effective mosquito control.
“For the average American who is not traveling to this area, there is nothing they need to worry about,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.