The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Friday that the first Zika vaccines could be 18 months away from large clinical trials.

WHO's announcement also came with an advice to women to delay travel plans to Zika outbreak areas in relation to the virus' association with microcephaly. The neurological disorder causes babies to be born with abnormally small brain and heads.

WHO's health systems and innovation assistant Director-General Marie-Paule Kieny said that agency's response to the Zika endemic is "proceeding very quickly." About 15 groups and companies are currently working on the hunt for Zika vaccines.

"(But) our knowledge of what is currently in the pipeline tells us that it will take approximately 18 months before a vaccine can be launched into large-scale trial to demonstrate efficacy," said Kieny.

The U.N. health organization believes that the association between the mosquito-borne virus and the neurological disorder in newborn infants is "more and more probable." However, time is needed to confirm if an actual link occurs through clinical trials.

Scientists in Colombia are analyzing the effects of the Zika virus in pregnant women who had been infected. Scientists in Brazil are also conducting a similar research on the hypothesis.

WHO's Director of Strategy Christopher Dye said to protect the general public's health, the agency should treat Zika as guilty unless tests said otherwise. While the rest of the world expects WHO officials to say that they've determined the link already, tests are still being conducted and it could take weeks even months before a confirmation is made.

"In a few weeks or months we will see how many of these women will deliver a child with microcephaly and this will make things much clearer," added Kieny.

WHO's previous Zika guidelines only advised pregnant women or those who are trying to become pregnant to guard themselves from the bites of virus-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitos. While the virus is not transmitted through person-to-person contact, there were several documented cases of sexual transmission.

The updated guidelines now urged both men and women returning from Zika outbreak areas to practice safe sex which includes the consistent and correct condom usage. However, WHO didn't say how long this particular guideline should be followed by couples returning from areas where the virus is locally being transmitted.

Photo: Andres Rueda | Flickr

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