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    WHO: Zika May Cause 'Severe Public Health Crisis'

    WebMD Health News

    March 22, 2016 -- As the Zika virus spreads, “the world will face a severe public health crisis,” the head of the World Health Organization warned Tuesday.

    “In less than a year, the status of Zika has changed from a mild medical curiosity to a disease with severe public health implications,” WHO director-general Margaret Chan, MD, said in a press briefing. “The more we know, the worse things look.”

    Serious birth defects, paralysis, and now swelling of the brain and spinal cord are among the host of ills linked to the Zika virus. And there may be more.

    Scientists are hard at work on a vaccine, which may enter clinical trials as early this year, but Chan said it would probably come too late to help.

    “The first explosive wave of spread may be over before a vaccine is available,” she said.

    Development of a vaccine is “imperative,” she said, since more than half of the world’s population lives in areas with the mosquito that spreads Zika.

    The virus is now being passed from mosquitos to people in 38 countries and territories, most of them in North and South America.

    Because Zika is new to these areas, residents have no natural immunity to it, which makes it easy for the disease to spread and for people to get sick.

    In most cases, the infection is mild. It causes a fever, rash, red eyes, and achiness.

    But in an estimated 1% of cases, Zika infection may trigger more serious problems, including Guillain-Barre syndrome, which paralyzes the muscles. Most people who get Guillain-Barre eventually get better, but a full recovery may take months of rehabilitation and medical treatment.

    Reports of this syndrome emerge about 3 weeks after the virus first appears in an area, Chan said. So far, a total of 12 countries and territories have reported an increase of Guillain-Barre cases linked to Zika.

    Earlier this month, doctors reported the first case of brain swelling linked to the virus. The patient was an 81-year-old man who was on a cruise through the South Pacific when he ran a fever and lapsed into a coma. Doctors diagnosed swelling of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, a condition called meningoencephalitis. Tests found Zika virus in his spinal fluid, and no other infectious agents were detected. He recovered after 38 days in the hospital.

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