The United Nations is ramping up its fight against the mosquito-borne Zika virus spreading fast across the Americas in the wake of global health experts declaring the disease a public health emergency of international proportions.
According to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, one option is to expose male mosquitoes to nuclear radiation to irradiate their sperm and make them infertile. The proposed program would target the epicenter of the Zika outbreak in Brazil in attempts to stem the spread
“If Brazil released a huge number of sterile males, it would take a few months to reduce the population, (but) it has to be combined with other methods,” IAEA Deputy Director General Aldo Malavasi explained on Tuesday.
IAEA experts are set to meet with Brazilian authorities on Feb. 16 to discuss how to implement the Sterile Insect Technology plan.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has launched a “global response unit” to respond to the Zika epidemic after declaring a public health crisis over the virus on Monday. The WHO’s regional response to the Zika virus will aim to take lessons from international action on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 and 2015, which many criticized was too slow to respond to the crisis.
UNICEF is also working with local governments to help educate at-risk communities and stem the spread of the virus.
“We need to act fast to provide women and pregnant mothers with the information they need to protect themselves and their babies, and we need to engage with communities on how to stop the mosquito that is carrying and transmitting this virus,” said UNICEF Senior Adviser for Health Emergencies Dr. Heather Papowitz in a statement on Tuesday.
The U.N. response comes as the first case of the Zika virus was confirmed in Chile on Tuesday. Public health authorities have called it an “imported” case of Zika, since the person was infected while visiting Colombia, where more than 20,000 cases have been reported.
Chile already had a Zika scare in 2014 when 173 cases were reported in the remote Chilean territory of Easter Island, no cases have been confirmed since. Chile has joined several countries in the region in urging women to avoid pregnancy given the suspected link between the virus and the abnormal brain development condition in newborns known as microcephaly.
Ecuador, on the other hand, has confirmed its first case of a pregnant women infected with the Zika virus. Though Zika normally is not considered dangerous or life threatening, the link to a spike in babies being born with unusually small heads and incomplete brain development has raised alarm across the region.
In neighboring Colombia, more than 2,000 pregnant women reportedly have the Zika virus. In Brazil, some 4,000 babies have been born with microcephaly.
The U.S. has also recorded its first case of Zika contracted within the country by sexual transmission from a person who had visited Latin America. One case of a baby being born with microcephaly has been reported in Hawaii after the mother had visited Brazil while pregnant.
According to the WHO, Zika is “spreading explosively” across the Americas. The Pan American Health Organization reports that 24 countries have already been affected by the outbreak.
Researchers suggest climate change could be responsible for the recent spread of mosquito-transmitted viruses by increasingly making more areas hospitable environments in which tropical diseases like Zika can thrive.
Health experts expect the Zika virus to spread to all 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries as well as the southern part of the United States, putting up to 4 million people across the Americas at risk.
WATCH: Zika Virus Spreads Across Latin America