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WHO Declares Public Health Emergency Related To Zika Virus

Arizona Department of Health Services

The World Health Organization has announced that the explosive spread of the Zika virus in the Americas is an "extraordinary event" that merits being declared an international emergency.

The agency convened an emergency meeting of independent experts on Monday to assess the outbreak after noting a suspicious link between Zika's arrival in Brazil last year and a surge in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads. 

Although WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said there was no definitive proof that the Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes, is responsible for the birth defects, she acknowledged on Thursday that "the level of alarm is extremely high."

The Centers for Disease Controlrecommends those traveling to Mexico protect themselves from mosquito bites. The agency identified mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus in the country last November. Dr. Frank LoVecchio, an emergency room doctor at Maricopa County's public hospital, said he’s consistently getting updates on what symptoms to watch.  

“I think it’s important for us to always get a travel history in primary care medicine to find out where our patients have been,” he said. “It’s certainly on our radar if I had a woman who had flu-like symptoms and had recent travel to one of the areas that was high risk.” 

Since there is no vaccine yet, LoVecchio said preventive action is the best way to avoid getting infected. The CDC said people can protect themselves by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and using insect repellent. 

The last public health emergency was declared for the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people.

WHO estimates there could be up to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been changed to clarify the name of  Maricopa County's public hospital.

Updated 2/2/2016 at 11:02 a.m.

Alexandra Olgin was a Senior Field Correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2016.