World Health Organisation sounds alarm over Zika link to babies' brain condition
An association between the Zika virus and a congenital brain condition found in babies born to infected mothers should be considered a "public health emergency of international concern", the World Health Organisation has said.
The global health body made its decision after an emergency meeting in Geneva to discuss the "explosive" nature of the virus.
WHO officials have predicted that as many as four million people could be infected with the virus this year.
The last time a global emergency was declared was for the Ebola outbreak, which is thought to have led to more than 11,000 deaths.
Zika has been linked to thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brains in Brazil.
Colombia has also seen a rise in the number of patients diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder which can cause paralysis.
Following a meeting of an International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan said the causal relationship between infection during pregnancy and microcephaly in babies is "strongly suspected" but not scientifically proven.
The committee advised that the association between the virus and microcephaly - a condition where the child has an underdeveloped brain - constitutes an "extraordinary event".
She said that a coordinated international response was needed to investigate and understand the relationship between the virus and the condition.
Patterns of spread of the virus, the lack of vaccines and reliable diagnostic tests are also cause for concern, Dr Chan added.
"After a review of the evidence the committee advised that the clusters of microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world," she said.
"In their view a coordinated international response is needed to minimise the threat in effected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread.
"Members of the committee agree that the situation meets the conditions for a public health emergency of international concern.
"I have accepted this advice. I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes a public health emergency of international concern."
Dr Chan added: "As a precautionary measure, and because of the association, a co-ordinated international response is needed to improve surveillance, the detection of infection, congenital malformations, the detection of neurological complications, to intensify the control of mosquito populations and to expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect people at risk - especially during pregnancy.
"The committee found no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the threat of Zika virus.
"At present the most important protective measures are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals - especially pregnant women."
Since the start of the outbreak last year, five UK travellers have been diagnosed with the Zika virus.
While many do not even know they are infected, some can suffer symptoms including fever, joint pain, itching, rash, conjunctivitis or red eyes, headache, muscle pain and eye pain.
In the UK, the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) recommends that people who are pregnant or trying to becoming pregnant should reconsider travel to affected countries.
It has advised that any patients who suffer from a severe, chronic medical condition, or have medical conditions that weaken the immune system, should seek advice from health workers before travelling.
It has also urged health professionals to consider Zika as a possible diagnosis in any patients with fever returning from South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, south and south-east Asia and the Pacific region.
Meanwhile Public Health England (PHE) has said men in the UK should wear condoms for a month after returning from any of the 23 countries affected by Zika.
In guidance to health professionals, PHE said the risk of transmission of the virus through sex was very low but condoms should be used as a precaution.
At present, there are no vaccines, specific treatments or rapid diagnostic tests for the virus.
The US has said it has two potential candidates for a vaccine for the Zika virus. While clinical trials may be able to begin before the end of this year, there will not be a widely available vaccine for several years.
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said: "Whilst a direct link between Zika virus infection in pregnancy and babies born with microcephaly needs to be established, the severity of the disease and the strong association with recent and ongoing Zika outbreaks is clearly sufficient cause for concern to declare an international health emergency.
"This makes sense as it will help mobilise international effort and collaboration."
Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, added: "The WHO faced heavy criticism for waiting too long to declare the Ebola outbreak a public health emergency and they should be congratulated for being far more proactive this time. Today's declaration will give the WHO the authority and resources it needs to lead the international response to Zika."