A tropical disease outbreak is now hitting regions of Latin America and may be causing lethal birth defects, warned health officials.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is now on the lookout for the Zika virus, seen to be rapidly spreading throughout Brazil and eight other neighboring nations.

Along with its spread is an unusual increase in microcephaly - an untreatable disease that hinders an unborn baby's brain and head development - in hard-hit regions, where a 20-fold increase from previous years was discovered. Over 1,200 cases were reported in Brazil alone, and it was a sharp rise from 739 reported cases last Nov. 27.

The Pan American Health Organization, an arm of WHO, issued an alert about this growing threat that is transmitted to humans by the Aedes mosquitoes, the same kind that passes on dengue and chikungunya. Six of the countries detected cases as early as November.

Tests conducted on two pregnant women showed that the Zika virus was in the amniotic fluid, and ultrasound diagnosed their babies with microcephaly. The virus had also been found in blood and tissue samples of a microcephaly-stricken baby who died five minutes after being born.

French Polynesian officials also reported an unusual rise in malformations in babies' central nervous system during an outbreak of the virus on the islands since last year. Based on tests, four out of 17 malformations suggested earlier exposure to flavivirus, increasing the possibility that the infections exhibited no symptom.

Other complications found by Brazilian officials in Zika patients include Guillain-Barre syndrome, also seen in suspected French Polynesian patients. So far they had reported three deaths from the virus, including a newborn, a male lupus patient, and a 16-year-old girl originally believed to be afflicted with dengue.

"Although neither even establishes a causal relation with Zika virus, the hypothesis cannot be ruled out," said PAHO of the reported Guillain-Barre syndrome in patients.

A publication reported that many Brazilians are now in panic, with local media outlets urging women to postpone pregnancy until more details about Zika surface.

PAHO director of communicable diseases Dr. Marcos Espinal said not enough proof exists at present to make drastic steps to avoid pregnancy, and that women on the way should simply consult their doctor regularly.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around one in five individuals infected with Zika fall ill and show symptoms such as rash, fever, red eyes, joint and muscle pain, headaches, and vomiting.

But the virus is difficult to test for, warned viral specialist Dr. Ann Powers of the CDC, and can be mistaken for dengue. "There is a lot we don't know about this virus. It hasn't until the last few years been a significant human pathogen," said Dr. Powers.

She advised guests of outbreak areas to take precautions against mosquito bites, such as using insect repellants and wearing long sleeves and pants.

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture | Flickr

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