The spiralling crisis surrounding the Zika virus is the result of decades of policy failures on mosquito control and poor access to family planning services, the World Health Organization said Monday.
"The spread of Zika... (is) the price being paid for a massive policy failure that dropped the ball on mosquito control in the 1970s," WHO chief Margaret Chan told the opening of the UN health agency's annual assembly.
Those failures have allowed the mosquito-borne virus to spread rapidly and create "a significant threat to global health," Chan said.
Experts agree that Zika is behind a surge in Latin America in cases of the birth defect microcephaly -- babies born with abnormally small heads and brains -- after their mothers were infected with the virus.
The virus, which also causes the rare but serious neurological disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome, is mainly spread by two species of Aedes mosquito but has also been shown to transmit through sexual contact.
"Zika shows an extreme consequence of the failure to provide universal access to sexual and family planning services," Chan said, pointing out that Latin America and the Caribbean, hit hard by the outbreak, "have the highest proportion of unintended pregnancies anywhere in the world."
That is a problem when a single mosquito bite during pregnancy can cause severe brain abnormalities in newborns, she said, hinting at a feeling of impotence faced with the virus now present in 60 countries worldwide.
In Brazil, the hardest-hit country, more than 1.5 million people have been infected with Zika, and nearly 1,400 cases of microcephaly have been registered since the outbreak began last year.
"With no vaccines and no reliable and widely available diagnostic tests, to protect women of childbearing age, all we can offer is advice," Chan said.
"Avoid mosquito bites, delay pregnancy, do not travel to areas with ongoing transmission."