"International response is needed to minimize the threat in infected countries and reduce risk of international spread," WHO director general Margaret Chan said

By Tiare Dunlap
February 01, 2016 03:05 PM

The World Health Organization designated the Zika Virus “a public health emergency of international concern” on Monday.

The WHO’s declaration represents its highest level of alert and paves the way for more money and manpower to fight the spread of the virus.

At a news conference in Geneva, Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO, said that cases of microcephaly in regions with Zika outbreaks “constitute an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world.” Adding that, “international response is needed to minimize the threat in infected countries and reduce risk of international spread.”

The rare declaration was spurred by growing concern that the Zika infection in pregnant women is linked to microcephaly – a birth defect that causes small headd and brain abnormalities.

Chan said the primary reason for the decision was that members of an advisory panel “agree that a causal relationship and microcephaly is ‘strongly suspected’ though not scientifically proven.”

The outbreak of Zika began in Brazil last May and has spread to more than 20 countries in Central and South America. The WHO has previously warned that the virus is “spreading explosively” in the Americas and that as many as 4 million people could be infected by the end of the year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended pregnant women delay travel to the nearly two-dozen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where the outbreak is growing.

Earlier this week, the government of El Salvador went so far as to advise women to hold off on getting pregnant until 2018. Officials in Ecuador and Colombia have issued a similar advisory.

Hawaiian health officials said a baby recently born with microcephaly at an Oahu hospital to a mother who had lived in Brazil was infected with the virus in utero.