By Richard Knox
The World Health Organization on Monday declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” because of a fast-moving outbreak of serious birth defects and some cases of adult paralysis that appear to be connected to the Zika virus.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the situation represents “an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world.” The agency says the previously obscure virus has spread to 25 countries and territories in this hemisphere so far.
The declaration comes before definitive proof that the birth defects and neurological illness, called Guillain-Barre syndrome, are caused by the mosquito-borne virus. But Chan said it would be a mistake to wait until a causative link has been proven — or disproven.
“Can you imagine if we did not do all this work now, and waited until the scientific evidence comes out, then people would say…’Why didn’t you take action? Because the mosquito is ubiquitous,’ ” Chan said.
The WHO declared a similar emergency last year because of Ebola in West Africa — but was heavily criticized for waiting too long in that case.
About 4,000 children have been born in Brazil recently with microcephaly, a stunting of the brain and skull associated with severe cognitive defects — a 20-fold increase over the past year. Of these affected infants, 270 were born to mothers who had confirmed exposure to the virus. Brazilian officials estimate that 4 million people there could be infected with Zika in the coming year.
A declaration of public health emergency allows the WHO to release contingency funds to help affected countries track and count cases, explore the possible viral link, help develop a diagnostic test and possibly a vaccine, and intensify efforts to control the mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus. The WHO does not recommend restricting travel to affected areas, though the Geneva-based agency reiterated its advice to pregnant women to avoid travel to areas where Zika virus is spreading.
Experts say it could take six to nine months to determine if Zika virus is responsible for the explosive increase in microcephaly and occasional cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome. That’s too long to be certain before next July’s Olympics in Brazil, ground zero of the Zika outbreak.
But increasingly few experts doubt that link. There appears to be no other good explanation why Brazil’s tally of microcephaly cases has ballooned from fewer than 200 in 2014 to more than 4,000 since then, while Zika infections in Brazil soared from zero to 1.5 million.
The rapidly evolving picture is not simple. On one hand, the World Health Organization calls the spread “explosive.” In just a few months, the virus has infiltrated 23 Latin and Central American countries. And there seems every prospect that Zika could become endemic in this hemisphere — that is, that it could be around for years to come.
“Zika is here to stay in the Western Hemisphere,” Michael Osterholm, of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, wrote in The New York Times this weekend. “It will be part of life for many years to come.” Continue reading