CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela has announced the first Zika virus-related deaths in the South American country.
President Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday that at least three people have died in Venezuela due to complications related to the mosquito-borne Zika virus. He added that 68 people have been hospitalized with complications confirmed to be related to the virus.
Maduro did not say what the complications were or how the deaths had been confirmed to be Zika-related.
Venezuela is reporting more than 5,000 suspected cases of Zika since November of last year. Local health organizations say the real number of Zika is likely much higher.
Investigators are studying a possible link to Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis and is sometimes fatal, and to birth defects including microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with small heads.
The World Health Organization said Zika qualifies as a global health emergency, a declaration that is expected to trigger increased funding and coordinated efforts to help stop the outbreak. WHO estimates there could be up to four million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year.
Brazil has been the epicenter of the outbreak, with estimates of at least 1.5 million people infected. That's prompting concern among athletes expected to take part in the Rio Olympics in August.
"If I had to decide today, I would not go," U.S. women's soccer team goalie Hope Solo said Wednesday. "Fortunately the Olympics are about six months away so I believe we have time to get some of our doubts and questions answered."
The Obama administration has asked Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight Zika in the U.S. Health officials said Wednesday mosquito eradication here and abroad is key to protect pregnant women until they can develop a vaccine.