(Mosquitos: the chief culprits in the rapid spread of the Zika virus)

On February 1, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency. The announcement came in response to an extraordinary increase in birth defects in Brazil. During 2015, thousands of infants were born with microcephaly – a disorder that causes fetuses to develop abnormally small heads. Though researchers have not been able to conclusively make the connection, the leading hypothesis holds that the Zika virus is likely responsible for the uptick of this rare birth defect.

WHO Director Margaret Chan declared the pattern in Brazil “an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world.”

The crisis certainly has global dimensions. First discovered in the 1940s in Africa, the virus only made its way to Latin America last May, where it has since rapidly spread to 23 nations. Florida Governor Rick Scott has announced a state of emergency after as many as 12 cases emerged in the state. A pregnant woman in Spain recently became the first European Zika virus case. Specialists believe that up to 1.5 million Brazilians alone may have contracted it.

The issuing of the global health emergency will trigger funding for prevention and mosquito eradication – efforts to contain the spread of the virus, which takes its biggest toll on new borns. Women in many affected areas who have contracted the virus, however, are stuck in a difficult position. Many of the countries hit with the outbreak have strict anti-abortion laws in place, meaning that affected pregnant women may have to bring children to term who have severe, debilitating brain-damage. Microcephaly cannot be detected in fetuses until late in the second-trimester, further complicating the situation of Zika-stricken pregnant women residing in nations with restrictive stances on reproduction issues.

While nations like Brazil are reconsidering strict anti-abortion laws in light of the Zika virus outbreak, others are holding fast to their onerous legal codes. El Salvador – where abortion is illegal – has officially suggested that women simply refrain from getting pregnant until 2018.

Authorities have sought to dispel concerns that the virus poses a risk during the upcoming Olympic games, scheduled to be held in Brazil this summer. Government officials cited the relatively cool month of August and rigorous mosquito eradication efforts underway as reasons why visitors for the games will be safe from contracting the virus. Drawing a link between the Zika virus and international sporting events, however, some specialists have speculated that the virus could have been introduced into the country during the 2014 World Cup. So far, no upsurge in ticket returns has occurred in response to recent events.

Key Elements Group LLC will continue covering the global response to the Zika virus as programs get underway and fundraising initiatives begin in support of affected communities.

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