Alarm is mounting over the virus' spread. The World Health
Organization (WHO), which declared a public health emergency, says
the virus has been transmitted in at least 32 countries, from South
America to the Western Pacific.
Brazil's top health official Marcelo Castro said the region needed
to "exchange information, make alliances and discuss what
coordinated action we can take to control this epidemic."
Brazil, which has been hardest hit by Zika, said on Tuesday that
4,074 cases of infants with severe birth defects could be linked to
the mosquito-borne virus, for which there is no vaccine.
"On Feb. 11, U.S. technical experts will arrive in Brazil to hold a
high-level meeting where they will determine the first steps and
timetable for developing this vaccine," Castro said going into a
meeting of regional health ministers in Montevideo.
In a 16-point statement issued later, the ministers agreed to share
more information on the virus, strengthen public awareness campaigns
at border crossings and airports as well as to bolster training of
medical staff on how to prevent and treat Zika.
Zika has been linked to a birth defect known as microcephaly - in
which babies are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped
brains - and is spreading rapidly in the Americas.
There is, however, no proven link and the absence of microcephaly in
other Zika-hit countries was confusing, said Colombia's Health
Minister Alejandro Gaviria.
"We have 20,000 confirmed cases of Zika," Gaviria told reporters
outside the meeting. "Yet we don't have a single confirmed case of
microcephaly. If you extrapolate the rates in Brazil to Colombia, we
should have tens, even hundreds of cases."
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The rapid spread of Zika through the Americas has led governments to
issue travel warnings advising pregnant women not to travel to
infected zones. Some airlines have also offered refunds to
Echoing Brazil's reassurances that there was no risk of canceling
the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this year, Gaviria said the
Colombian government was not worrying for now about a slide in
Drugmakers globally are racing to produce a vaccine for Zika, but
producing a safe vaccine is strewn with hurdles and full regulatory
approval could take years.
Carissa Etienne, the Pan American Health Organization's (PAHO)
director, earlier said the body needed $8.5 million to help
countries tackle the health emergency.
(Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Frances Kerry)
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