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The head of the World Health Organization has warned that the Zika virus is “spreading explosively” across the Americas and could infect as many as 4 million people.

Dr. Margaret Chan told the agency’s executive board in Geneva last week that Zika has been linked in some places to a spike in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads and cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis.

Although there is no definitive proof that Zika is the cause, Chan said, “The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions.”

Q: What is the Zika virus and how widespread is it?

A: Zika is a virus transmitted primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, a species that also spreads dengue and yellow fever.

The disease did not begin to spread widely in the Americas until May, when an outbreak was reported in Brazil. It has now spread to 23 countries and territories in the region.

Q: Why am I only hearing about it now?

A: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 1 in 5 people infected with the Zika virus fall ill, and the symptoms are usually mild: fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes.

The arrival of the virus in Brazil, however, coincided with a sharp increase in a condition known as microcephaly — an unusually small head size and brain damage — in newborns.

Q: Why is the virus spreading so quickly?

A: There has been little previous exposure to Zika in the Americas, so people lack immunity.

Q: Is the United States at risk of an outbreak?

A: The only cases diagnosed in the U.S. so far are in people who traveled to countries where Zika is spreading and presumably contracted it there.

Q: How can people protect themselves?

A: There is no vaccine or cure for the Zika virus, but there are steps that people can take to reduce the risk of infection:

The WHO and CDC recommend reducing mosquito populations by eliminating breeding sites, especially in and around the places where people live. Another option is to treat standing water with larvicide.

Those living in or visiting Zika-affected areas are being urged to protect themselves from mosquito bites by using insect repellent; wearing clothes (preferably light-colored) that cover as much of the body as possible; closing doors and windows, or using screens to keep out the insects; and sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets, especially during the day when Aedes mosquitoes are most active.

Pregnant women planning to travel to areas where Zika is circulating are being urged to consult a health care provider before traveling and upon return. If they believe they have been exposed to the virus, they should consult with their health care provider for close monitoring of their pregnancy, authorities say.

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