Reuters International

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Four babies born with microcephaly linked to the Zika virus have been confirmed in Panama, the health ministry said on Wednesday, out of 264 total cases of the mosquito-borne infection in the country.

Public health officials have been concerned about the possibility of a surge in the rare birth defect, seen in worrisome numbers in Brazil, as the virus spreads rapidly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Fourteen pregnant women have contracted the virus, and six babies who were infected with Zika were born with malformations, including the microcephaly cases, the health ministry said.

According to the World Health Organization, there is a strong scientific consensus that Zika can cause the birth defect microcephaly as well as Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that can result in paralysis, though conclusive proof may take months or years.

Panama's Health Minister Francisco Terrientes said the country is "staying alert to the rapid expansion of the Zika virus," and called on the population to take preventative measures.

Brazil said it has confirmed 1,198 cases of Zika-related microcephaly, a rare birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies. Zika has also been linked to other severe birth defects and with stillbirth.

(Reporting by Elida Moreno; Writing by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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