WHO Alert Declares Zika Virus a Public Health Emergency

February 1, 2016
Caitlyn Fitzpatrick

It’s not just another rare mosquito-borne illness. The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for an international response as the Zika virus outbreak has become a public health emergency.

It’s not just another rare mosquito-borne illness. The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for an international response as the Zika virus outbreak has become a public health emergency.

During a briefing with member countries on January 28, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, MD, spoke on the Zika virus outbreak which has already hit 23 countries. Chan said that “the level of alarm is extremely high” and went on to announce an emergency meeting to discuss international strategies in Geneva, Switzerland on February 1.

Chan's decision was announced on Twitter.

"WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan: #ZikaVirus & microcephaly situation is a Public Health Emergency of Intl Concern #alert.” according to the tweet.

MIcrocephaly was not a household word--outside of medical circles--before concerns about Zika surfaced. The virus has been associated with an increase in microcephaly, babies born with small heads nad pregnant women are being advised to postpone travel to countries with Zika history. Chan described the possible Zika-microcephaly link as an “extraordinary event.”

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Currently, the most important preventive measure against Zika is to control the mosquito population and ward off mosquito bites in high-risk individuals, especially pregnant women. Chan explained that there does not appear to be a need to restrict travel or trade in order to stop the spread of the Zika virus. However, an international effort is needed to improve surveillance, detection, diagnostic testing, and research.

David Heymann, MD, assistant director-general for Health Security and Environment and representative of the director-general for Polio Eradication, spoke at the meeting as well and expressed the importance of developing a vaccine against Zika. Although the virus is associated with microcephaly, Heymann acknowledged that it’s not known how long it will take to confirm the causal relationship.

A child in Hawaii was recently born with microcephaly believed to be related to a Zika infection. Officials warn the virus is expected to spread throughout the United States. For a full list of countries on the travel alert list, check here.

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