Zika virus: WHO declares global public health emergency, says causal link to brain defects ‘strongly suspected’

February 1, 2016 in News by RBN

Washington Post |  Ariana Eunjung Cha,  Lena H. Sun, Brady Dennis

Maria Rodrigues, 29, and Romero Perreira, 39, with their daughter, Veronica, 10, left, visit their baby Maria Eduardo, who was born with a suspected Zika-related microcephaly. (Lianne Milton/Panos Pictures for The Washington Post)


The World Health Organization on Monday designated the Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern, an action it has taken only three times before and which paves the way for the mobilization of more funding and manpower to fight the mosquito-born pathogen spreading “explosively” through the Americas.

Zika, which was first identified more than 50 years ago, has alarmed public health officials in recent months because of its possible association with thousands of cases of brain defects, known as microcephaly, in newborns. The WHO has estimated that the virus will reach most of the hemisphere and infect up to 4 million people by year’s end.

Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, said at a press briefing that the primary reason for the decision was that members of an 18-member advisory panel agree that a causal relationship between Zika and microcephaly is “strongly suspected” although it hasn’t been scientifically proven. She said that given the seriousness of the conditions being reported, the consequences of waiting were too great.

“Even the clusters of microcephaly alone are enough to declare a public health emergency because of its heavy burden” on women, families, and the community, Chan said.

“Can you imagine if we do not do all these works now and wait until the science comes out, then people will say why don’t you take action?” she said.

According to the latest figures, there have been 4,000 suspected cases in Brazil and 270 have been confirmed as microcephaly with evidence of an infection. There were several similar cases in French Polynesia in 2014, WHO officials said.

The declaration represents the WHO’s highest level of alert and is only invoked in response to the most dire threats. The first time was in 2009 during the H1N1 influenza epidemic that is believed to have infected up to 200 million worldwide; the second in May 2014 when a paralyzing form of polio re-emerged in Pakistan and Syria; and the third in August 2014 with Ebola in West Africa.

Zika’s emergence as a major public problem has taken infectious disease experts by surprise. The virus has been popping up in various parts of the world for decades, but has typically only caused mild symptoms such as a rash or body aches in its victims. Nearly all those infected in the past recovered fully although there were rare cases of complications.

In recent months, health officials have focused on trying to protect pregnant women from the virus under the theory that their being bitten may be adversely impacting the growth of the babies they are carrying. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel advisory urging pregnant women to avoid travel to areas where the virus is actively spreading.

On Monday, health officials reiterated their advice to pregnant women to wear appropriate clothing, repellant and take other practical measures, such as sleeping under a bed net while taking naps, to avoid being bitten.

“Zika is the latest emerging health threat, and a serious concern for pregnant women and their babies,” CDC director Tom Frieden said in a statement.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the WHO’s declaration is the “official global sounding bell that governments and others need to start to really paying attention to this.”

Infectious disease experts and others have been pressuring the WHO to escalate its response to Zika for several months, warning of the mistakes world leaders made during the Ebola crisis when a lack of coordination delayed quarantines and treatment.

Much of the alarm about Zika comes from reports from Brazil, the epicenter of the outbreak, where Zika is suspected as a cause of what may be up to thousands of babies being born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development. Researchers are also investigating a possible link between the virus and a surge in Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition that can lead to paralysis that have been documented in Brazil, French Polynesia and El Salvador.

Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s director of outbreaks and health emergencies, said that the evidence pointing to both a “temporal and geographic association” between Zika and microcephaly was strong.

“This is definitely the right measure to be taking at this time based on the information available,” he said.

In an interview with the Reuters news agency, Brazilian Heath Minister Marcelo Castro said the outbreak is his country is worse than previously believed because an estimated 80 percent of people who become infected with the virus do not exhibit known symptoms.

Castro also said every municipality in Brazil will be required to report all Zika cases to a central database starting next week. In further controls, Brazil will join other nations in banning blood donations from people who had the virus.

Last week, Castro warned that Brazil was “badly losing” the battle against the mosquito blamed for spreading Zika and said that more than 220,000 members of Brazil’s military would be mobilized in eradication efforts. The plans included distributin mosquito repellent to about 400,000 pregnant women, according to Brazil’s O Globo newspaper.

The WHO’s Chan said there is no reason for travel or trade restrictions at this time.