The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a “public health emergency” on Monday, due to the apparent link of the Zika virus to a surge in serious birth defects in South America.
Following a meeting of independent experts in Geneva, WHO director-general Margaret Chan said Zika was an “extraordinary event” that needed a coordinated response.
“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014 constitutes a public health emergency of international concern”
The WHO alert puts Zika in the same category of concern as Ebola.
The Independent reports:
Evidence linking Zika to the thousands of cases of microcephaly in South America and the Pacific Islands was “strong and growing”, Ms Chan said.
Tens of thousands of Zika cases have been reported since the outbreak began in Brazil. Though symptoms are relatively minor for most victims, the virus also appears to be associated with the rare Guillain-Barré post-viral syndrome, which can lead to paralysis.
It has led to recommendations pregnant women don’t travel to affected regions, and Ms Chan said it was key for a public effort to take measures to avoid infection.
Last week a WHO expert said the UN agency expects an estimated four million people to be affected by the outbreak in South and Central America.
The emergency committee in Geneva was chaired by Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a virologist who directed the WHO’s Sars outbreak response and more recently served as an expert consulting on the Ebola crisis.
Its other members included health service directors and infectious disease experts from around the world.
Professor Heymann told the press conference that Zika “as we know it today” was not a serious enough disease to warrant international concern.
But he said that the cluster of microcephaly and other neurological disorders reported following the Zika outbreak had, “after complex deliberations”, led to an emergency being declared.