The World Health Organization has declared the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus in the Americas a global emergency.
The decision comes as the disease, linked to thousands of birth defects in Brazil, spreads rapidly.
The designation was recommended by a committee of independent experts to the United Nations agency, following criticism of a hesitant response so far.
It should help fast-track international action and research priorities.
The UN health body said that a causal relationship between the virus and a surge in cases of microcephaly – a devastating condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain – was “strongly suspected”.
WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Zhan declared the virus a “public health emergency of international concern”.
She also said that an “international response is needed to minimise the threat in infected countries and reduce risk of international spread.
“Can you imagine if we do not do all this work now, and wait until all these scientific evidence to come out, people will say why didn’t you take action?” she said.
Fumigation efforts in Venezuela to minimise the risk of the disease. (AAP)
“All agree on the urgent need to coordinate international efforts to investigate and understand this relationship better.
“The experts also consider patterns of recent spread and the broad geographical distribution of the mosquito species that can transmit the virus, the lack of vaccines and rapid and reliable diagnostic tests and the absence of population immunity in newly affected countries were … further causes for concern.”
Panama said the country had 50 cases of the virus and expressed fears it would spread across the entire nation.
“Let’s be clear: it (Zika) is going to enter, it is going to spread,” the head of the health ministry’s epidemological department, Israel Cedeno, told the television network TVN-2.
The outbreak of the virus was first detected in Brazil in May last year and has been confirmed in more than 20 Latin American countries.
The WHO is under pressure to act quickly in the fight against Zika, after admitting it was slow to respond to the recent Ebola outbreak that ravaged parts of west Africa.
WHO has declared the mosquito-born virus a public health emergency of international concern.
In addition to microcephaly, Zika is also believed to be linked to a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome.
The virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads dengue fever and the chikungunya virus. It produces flu-like symptoms including a low-grade fever, headaches, joint pain and rashes.
WHO has so far refrained from issuing travel warnings related to Zika, stressing that the most effective form of prevention is getting rid of stagnant water where mosquitos easily breed, and using personal protection against mosquito bites such as using repellant and sleeping under mosquito nets.
This is a developing story. More information will be added as it comes to hand.
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