Zika: Three dead in Venezuela from virus-linked complications, says President

The World Health Organisation has declared a global emergency over possible links between the disease and the birth defect, microcephaly

At least three people have died in Venezuela due to complications related to the Zika virus, the president has announced.

President Nicolas Maduro added 68 people have also been hospitalised due to links the mosquito-borne virus.

“We have 319 confirmed cases, of which unfortunately 68 presented complications and we’ve had three deaths due to Zika nationally,” Mr Maduro said during a broadcast on state television, Reuters reports.

The announcement marks the first Zika-related deaths in the country.

There is currently no vaccination for Zika available; however the World Health Organisation announced today a possible Zika vaccine could be at least 18 months away from large-scale trials.

WHO assistant director-general for health systems and innovation, Marie-Paule Kieny, said the UN health agency's response is "proceeding very quickly" and 15 companies or groups have been identified as possible participants in the hunt for vaccines.

Mr Maduro did not say what the complications were or how the deaths had been confirmed to be liked to Zika. He also made no mention of the number of pregnant women thought to have the virus.

The number of suspected cases rose to 5,221 between 5 November and 8 February, the president said.

Previous public estimates last month suggested there were around 4,700 suspected cases, although local health organizations say the real number is likely to be much higher and have suggested the government is not doing enough to combat the outbreak.

Chronic product shortages mean even painkillers and insect repellent are in short supply.

On Wednesday, China confirmed its first case of the Zika virus in a 34-year-old man who had recently travelled to Venezuela.

WHO has declared a global emergency over possible links between the disease and the birth defect microcephaly, a condition which causes babies to be born with 'shrunken' heads.

Ms Kieny said on Friday WHO believes the link between the mosquito-borne virus and microcephaly is "more and more probable". 

Doctors and non-governmental organisations say they are monitoring dozens of pregnant women who they think may have suffered from Zika in the first months of gestation.

Epidemiologists in Venezuela say any potential cases of Zika-linked birth defects in babies would likely come to light around April, given the Virus is thought to have arrived in the country in the last quarter of 2015.

Scientists are also investigating a possible link between Zika and Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis and is sometimes fatal.

Last week, Colombian health officials suggested there is a connection between the virus and the nerve disorder after three deaths.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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