Three people have died in Venezuela from complications related to the Zika virus, President Nicolas Maduro said.
There have been 319 confirmed cases of the Zika virus in the nation, state-run newspaper Correo Del Orinoco reported Thursday.
Venezuela’s deaths come as other Latin American nations battle the virus.
Zika is also commanding attention because of an alarming connection between the virus and microcephaly, a neurological disorder in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. It causes severe developmental issues and in some cases, death.
The Zika virus is a flavivirus, part of the same family as yellow fever, West Nile and dengue. But unlike some of those viruses, there is no vaccine to prevent Zika and no medicine to treat the infection.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first case of locally acquired Zika virus in the United States in the latest outbreak. The case was transmitted via sex, and not by the most common route, which is via mosquito bite.
Brazil has reported the most cases in the outbreak, sparking major concern because the nation is hosting the Olympics in August.
The World Health Organization has declared the spike in microcephaly cases a global health emergency. Other nations affected include Colombia and El Salvador.
Adult deaths unclear
The WHO said it has not seen adult deaths due to the Zika virus, adding that the world health agency is awaiting more information on the Venezuela deaths. Brazil also reported three deaths from the virus, but experts say more research is needed on those cases as well.
“We have not seen reports of deaths of adults directly linked to the viral infection,” said Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, the WHO assistant director-general for health systems and innovation.
“It could be that this was Guillain-Barre in persons known to be infected with Zika virus, but this will need to be confirmed. We have had no direct primary information from Venezuela on that yet.”
The link between Zika virus and Guillain-Barre is highly probable, according to Kieny. Areas where there is an increased prevalence of Zika have also seen an increase in cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome.
“The direct causality is still to be demonstrated but the association in time and location seems to be clear. We have a few more weeks to be sure to demonstrate the causality, but the link between Zika and Guillain-Barre is highly probable,” Kieny said.
Guillain-Barre is a rare autoimmune disorder that can lead to life-threatening paralysis.
Vaccines in the works
The WHO has said that vaccines to fight the Zika virus are at least 18 months away from large scale trials.
Many companies have been identified, but most have just begun working on a vaccine, according to Kieny.
“The landscape is evolving very rapidly and numbers change daily,” she said.
“About 15 companies have been identified by the WHO so far, and most only just started work. Two vaccines candidates seem to be more advanced.”