The director-general of the World Health Organization has declared Zika virus a “public health emergency of international concern” — a PHEIC, pronounced “fike,” rhymes with spike, if you want to sound like a member of the WHO emergency committee.
It’s natural to be concerned when the WHO declares an epidemic — it has only done so three other times in its history: the 2009 influenza outbreak, an upswing in polio cases in 2014, and the West African Ebola outbreak in 2015. The question is: What makes the WHO concerned and how concerned should we be?
In this case, the disease itself is not as scary as the complications that have been linked to the virus — associations that have not yet been confirmed. Declaring a PHEIC allows the WHO to coordinate the international response, release emergency funds to better study the virus and confirm those potential complications as quickly as possible.
Here’s what we know. First, we know the virus is spreading quickly. The mosquito that carries the virus can be found from South America up to our hot and humid southeastern states in the U.S. And because the virus only arrived in the Western Hemisphere in 2014 — perhaps because of the World Cup or other sporting events — no one here has immunity to it, making it easy for mosquitoes to spread the virus. Some experts believe the virus can spread throughout the Americas, wherever the mosquito lives.
All this makes Zika sound scary, but we also know that up to 80 percent of people who catch the virus do not even display any symptoms. Those that do tend to have a mild illness with joint pain, a rash, red eyes and a fever, all of which resolve in four to seven days. No deaths have been reported so far that directly link to the virus. This is a far cry from Ebola, which causes a hemorrhagic syndrome that leads to death in as many as 50 percent of cases. Zika virus is worrisome in that it may cause horrible birth defects, but, put simply, it is not as scary as Ebola.
Still, it is the unknown that also concerns the WHO. Continue reading