Health officials: Little known virus may be causing deadly birth defects

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – A virus that many people have never even heard of is wreaking havoc on Brazil.

Health officials told NBC News that the Zika virus is moving across much of Central America with the help of mosquitoes.

Initially, the virus was thought to be harmless, but now experts say it may lead to a deadly birth defect called microcephaly.

The Pan American Health Organization, an arm of the World Health Organization, recently issued an alert about the virus.

“As of 30 November 2015, 1,248 cases of microcephaly, including seven deaths, have been reported in 14 states of Brazil, which are under investigation,” the organization said.

Microcephaly can be caused by a number of syndromes but is characterized by a smaller-than-usual brain and head.

“The number is increasing day by day,” Silvia Sardi and Gubio Soares Campos, with Brazil’s Federal University of Bahia, told NBC News in an email.

Right now, officials say there is not a definite link between the Zika virus and microcephaly, but there is a little evidence they may be connected.

Zika is commonly seen in Africa and has only recently come to South America. Now, it has been reported in Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela.

It is spread through the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also is responsible for spreading chikungunya and dengue. The pests usually live in central and south America, but has occasionally been found in south Florida, south Texas and Hawaii.

The most common symptoms of the virus are fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes.

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