WHO declares Zika virus international emergency
The World Health Organization has announced that the explosive spread of the Zika virus in the Americas is an “extraordinary event” that merits being declared an international emergency.
The agency convened an emergency meeting of independent experts on Monday to assess the outbreak after noting a suspicious link between Zika’s arrival in Brazil last year and a surge in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads.
Although WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said there was no definitive proof that the Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes, is responsible for the birth defects, she acknowledged on Thursday that “the level of alarm is extremely high.”
The last such public health emergency was declared for the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people.
WHO estimates there could be up to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year.
An emergency declaration is “similar to a global Amber Alert for public health,” Susan Kim, deputy director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law in Washington, said Sunday. “An emergency declaration by WHO is a spotlight on the issue, telling the world that this is something the world needs to pay attention to.”
Zika is “a novel, emerging infection that we know very little about,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute, who urged the WHO to act in aJAMA editorial last week. “The people in these countries deserve the protection of the international community and the World Health Organization.”
Zika, which first appeared in the Western Hemisphere in May, is worrisome because “you have populations who have never been exposed and have no immunity,” Gostin said Sunday. “You have a huge moral and public health concern about the well-being of pregnant women and their babies.”
Brazilian authorities have linked the Zika virus to a surge in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development.
The virus is spread through mosquitoes, like malaria or West Nile Virus. It does not spread directly from person to person. Four out of five people with Zika virus have no symptoms, according to the WHO. Those who do become ill typically have mild symptoms, such as a low fever, rash, joint pain, pink eye and headaches.
An emergency declaration would direct more money to combat the problem, said Amesh Adalja, a senior associate at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. If an emergency is declared, “there is a legal duty to respond promptly to contain the outbreak.”
The WHO has declared a public health emergency only three times: the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009; the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014; and a resurgence of polio in Syria and other countries in 2014.
But the WHO never declared a public health emergency with other viruses, such as MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Adalja said.
WHO officials want to make sure that nations don’t take inappropriate steps to limit travel or trade because of the virus, said Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general of the WHO. During the Ebola outbreak, many countries closed their borders, which harmed the fragile economies of West Africa.
The Americas could see 3 million to 4 million Zika infections a year, Sylvain Aldighieri of the Pan American Health Organization said last week.
The WHO should “wage war” against the Aedes mosquito, which spreads Zika virus and other infections, said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He said the WHO should appoint a “field marshal” to lead this fight.
Hotez said officials should test pools of mosquitoes as well as local residents for the Zika virus.
The WHO needs to spray insecticides and reduce standing water, where mosquitoes breed, Hotez added. Plus the agency should launch pilot studies of both genetically engineering mosquitoes and bacteria designed to reduce the mosquito population.
The WHO should also study giving everyone in a community a deworming medication called ivermectin, which kills any mosquitoes that bite the person taking the drug, Hotez said. Researchers are already testing some of these strategies against other deadly mosquito-borne diseases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already warned pregnant women to avoid traveling to countries with Zika outbreaks. El Salvador and other countries have gone further and urged women to postpone pregnancy because of the virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Zika Virus an international emergency.
With the possible serious fetal complications (microcephaly) during pregnancy that can occur from the Zika Virus, WHO has shown proactive response in tackling this virus. Though not conclusive, WHO has declared a public health emergency for the concern that the virus may cause serious fetal defects.
The following are five things to know about the Zika Virus.
In the past year, Zika has spread from Africa and Asia through the Americas. In Brazil, the number of infants born with shrunken, malformed brains has gone up by a factor of 10 since Zika entered the country. USA TODAY
The Zika virus, which has been linked to an epidemic of birth defects in Brazil, is spreading quickly throughout the Americas.
USA TODAY’s Liz Szabo asked experts to get readers up to date on the virus.
Q. What is Zika virus, and how does it spread?
A. Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in Uganda, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For decades, it was considered a minor-league virus, especially compared to major killers such as malaria and dengue. Until recently, Zika was limited to a narrow belt of equatorial Africa and Asia. Zika is spread by the Aedes mosquito. The virus doesn’t spread from person to person, like the flu. But mosquitoes who bite an infected person can spread it to their next victims.
Q. What are the symptoms of Zika?
A. Three out of four people infected by Zika have no symptoms, according to the Pan American Health Organization.
When Zika does produce symptoms, they’re usually mild and can include fever, rash, headaches, joint pain, muscle pain, lack of energy, weakness and pink eye. Symptoms set in three to 12 days after a person is bitten by an infectious mosquito. Symptoms are often mild, lasting two to seven days. Unlike another mosquito-borne infection, dengue fever, Zika doesn’t usually cause fatal complications in adults and children.
Q. So why are people concerned?
A. Because the virus has been linked to serious birth defects. Zika virus was first detected in Brazil in May. In October, Brazil’s Ministry of Health began receiving reports of an unusually high number of cases of microcephaly, in which babies are born with small heads and incomplete brain development. Brazil has now reported more than 3,500 cases. That’s a lot for Brazil, which usually has 100 to 200 microcephaly cases per year. There’s no treatment for microcephaly, which is sometimes fatal. At least 38 Brazilian babies have died. Although some children have normal intelligence and development, their heads remain small, according to the Mayo Clinic. Children with microcephaly are at risk for a range of issues: facial distortions, developmental disabilities, short stature, difficulties with balance and coordination, speech problems and seizures.
Zika virus also has been linked to cases of Guillian-Barre, a rare immune system disorder that can cause temporary paralysis.
Q. What treatments or vaccines are available for Zika virus?
A. There are no approved treatments or vaccines for Zika virus, according to the CDC.
Even diagnosing Zika is difficult, because its symptoms can mimic those of other mosquito-borne diseases, and there are no approved tests. The only way to prevent infection is to take the usual steps to avoid mosquito bites, such as staying indoors when visiting an area where the virus is present, as well as wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts and using mosquito repellent. Communities can reduce their risk of Zika by doing their best to eradicate mosquitoes, such as by removing trash that collects standing water, according to a report published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Q. How likely is Zika to come to the USA?
A. Zika already has hit Puerto Rico, which reported its first locally acquired case in December. The virus has moved quickly from South America to the Caribbean and Central America.
Some researchers speculate Zika might have arrived in South America during the 2014 World Cup Games in Brazil. Because Zika often causes no symptoms, researchers say it’s not surprising that the first cases of illness weren’t reported in Brazil until the following May.
Brazil is scheduled to host the Olympics this summer, which could give mosquitoes a chance to infect people from around the world.
According to the CDC, “because the Aedes species of mosquitoes that spread Zika virus are found throughout the world, it is likely that outbreaks will spread to new countries.”
As of February 1, 2016, in Houston, Texas, there has now been seven confirmed cases of the virus.
Seven cases of Zika Virus Confirmed in Houston Area
HOUSTON – Seven cases of the Zika virus have been confirmed in the Houston area.
There are three patients in the City of Houston and four more in Harris County. All of the patients had recently traveled to Latin America.
The Zika virus is spread by the Aedes mosquito and can’t be passed from person to person. For now, only people who live in or travel to Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia are at risk.
Some experts expect to see locally transmitted cases in Houston by the spring or summer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, Zika virus mostly causes three to seven days of mild fever, rash, aches and red eyes. Most people don’t have any symptoms and don’t even know they have the virus.
However, it can be dangerous for pregnant women. The virus has been linked to birth defects that can cause a child’s head or brain to develop abnormally small. The CDC is advising pregnant women to postpone trips to the countries affected.
Those still planning to travel to the affected countries are advised to take precautions by wearing bug spray, long sleeves and, if possible, stay indoors.
There is no known vaccine or medicine to treat the Zika virus.