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Zika can Travel to Asia, Africa, WHO Says

Update Date: Feb 02, 2016 09:35 AM EST

The Zika virus that has been spreading throughout the Americas could travel to Asia and Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) said shortly after the United Nations health agency declared the infection an international public health emergency.

"We've now set up a global response unit which brings together all people across WHO, in headquarters, in the regions, to deal with a formal response using all the lessons we've learned from the Ebola crisis," said Anthony Costello, WHO director for maternal, child and adolescent health, reported by Reuters. "The reason it's a global concern is that we are worried that this could also spread back to other areas of the world where the population may not be immune."

The WHO said that health officials throughout the world should be aware of the virus since the mosquito that carries it also lives "through Africa, parts of southern Europe and many parts of Asia, particularly South Asia."

The Zika virus, which is transmitted via the Aedes aegypti mosquito, has been linked to a birth defect called microcephaly. In Brazil where the virus has been very common, there have been more than 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly, which occurs when a baby is born with a smaller than normal head.

In order to understand the risks involved, especially for pregnant women and women looking to get pregnant, researchers are trying to understand how an infection, which is typically very mild, can cause the defect. Research teams are also in the process of developing a vaccine.

"We believe the association is guilty until proven innocent," Costello added.

In the meantime, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued travel guidelines to more than 20 countries and territories. Officials in some Central and South American countries have advised women to delay pregnancy plans for the time being.

UNICEF has also asked for $9 million to fund its programs in the Americas. These programs aim to prevent the spread of the virus and protect families and babies through education.

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