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Opinion: How To Understand The WHO’s Zika ‘Emergency’ (And Not Be Terrified By It)

Jaqueline Vieira, left, watches as her 3-month-old son Daniel, who was born with microcephaly, undergoes physical therapy at the Altino Ventura foundation in Recife, Brazil. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Jaqueline Vieira, left, watches as her 3-month-old son Daniel, who was born with microcephaly, undergoes physical therapy at the Altino Ventura foundation in Recife, Brazil. (Felipe Dana/AP)

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

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Zika Virus Prompts ‘Global Emergency,’ So Why Don’t U.S. Officials Sound Worried?

A doctor draws blood from Luana, who was born with microcephaly, at the Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in Recife, Brazil. Brazilian officials believe there's a sharp increase in cases of microcephaly and strongly suspect the Zika virus, which first appeared in the country last year, is to blame. (Felipe Dana/AP)

A doctor draws blood from Luana, who was born with microcephaly, at the Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in Recife, Brazil. Brazilian officials believe there’s a sharp increase in cases of microcephaly and strongly suspect the Zika virus, which first appeared in the country last year, is to blame. (Felipe Dana/AP)

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

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