SAO PAULO – The Brazilian government announced it will direct funds to a biomedical research center to help develop a vaccine against a virus linked to brain damage in babies.
Health Minister Marcelo Castro said Friday that the goal is for the Sao Paulo-based Butantan Institute to develop “in record time” a vaccine for the virus Zika, which is spread through mosquito bites.
Institute director Jorge Kalil said that is expected take three to five years.
Brazil is currently experiencing the largest known outbreak of Zika. The virus has been linked to a recent surge in birth defects including microcephaly, a rare condition in which newborns have smaller than normal heads and their brains do not develop properly.
The Health Ministry says 3,530 babies have been born with microcephaly in the country since October. Fewer than 150 such cases were seen in all of 2014.
Most have been concentrated in Brazil’s poor northeast, though cases in Rio de Janeiro and other big cities have also been on the rise, prompting people to stock up on mosquito repellent.
Some women of means have left the country to spend their pregnancies in the United States or Europe to avoid infection.
The Zika virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can also carry dengue and chikungunya.
“Today there is only one way to fight the Zika virus, which is to destroy the mosquito’s breeding grounds,” Castro said. “The final victory against the virus will only come when we develop a vaccine against that disease.”
In the first known case of the mosquito-borne virus in a birth on U.S. soil, a microcephalic baby born in Hawaii has been found to be infected by the Zika virus, U.S. health officials confirmed on Saturday.
The mother became ill with the Zika virus while living in Brazil in May 2015, and the baby was likely infected in the womb, Hawaiian state health officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert Friday advising pregnant women to avoid traveling to Brazil and several other countries in the Americas where Zika outbreaks have occurred.