After an Emergency Committee meeting held February 1, 2016, the World Health Organization announced it now officially deems the Zika virus spreading across Latin America and the Caribbean to be a public health emergency of international concern. This designation is expected to result in a coordinated global response “to minimize the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread,” according to a statement released yesterday. The mosquito-borne virus is expected to infect up to 4 million people by the end of 2016.
“In assessing the level of threat, the 18 experts and advisers looked in particular at the strong association, in time and place, between infection with the Zika virus and a rise in detected cases of congenital malformations and neurological complications,” said WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan.
“The experts agreed that a causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven. All agreed on the urgent need to coordinate international efforts to investigate and understand this relationship better.”
The WHO considers a situation of international concern one that is “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected”; “carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border”; and “may require immediate international action.”
Zika virus disease outbreaks were reported for the first time from the Pacific in 2007 and 2013, according to the WHO, and in 2015 from the Americas (Brazil and Colombia) and Africa (Cape Verde). Now more than 13 countries in the Americas are reporting cases of Zika virus infections, which is said to indicate rapid geographic expansion.
While the organization is not currently recommending that people stop traveling to areas where Zika virus infections have been reported, they do recommend that people take protective measures to prevent mosquito bites – particularly pregnant women. Environmental activist Bill McKibben said the virus points to a “dystopian future” in which women are advised not to have babies due to risks of microcephaly.