We've actually known of Zika's existence for decades, but it wasn't a major concern to humans until an outbreak hit the Pacific islands in 2007. After appearing in the Americas last year, it's now spread "explosively" to 23 countries and territories in the area, Chan said. She points out there isn't yet a direct link between the Zika virus infection and birth defects, but they're "strongly suspected." Because of the increased concern, she'll be convening an emergency committee meeting on February 1 to discuss what can be done about Zika.
With no cure on the horizon, the governments in Ecuador, El Salvador, Colombia and Jamaica are recommending that women delay their pregnancies to avoid complications. Unfortunately, that strategy probably won't be very effective, activists say. (If you're feeling shades of Children of Men from all of this news, you're not alone.) GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi say they're exploring Zika vaccine work, but it'll likely be a while before we see any results. Glaxo notes that it typically takes 10 to 15 years to develop vaccines.
"The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty," Chan said. "Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly."
[Photo credit: Fatih Erel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]