We reported earlier Monday that the World Health Organization would be meeting with a committee of experts to decide whether the outbreak of Zika virus would be declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern - a specific designation that calls for immediate action. Already, the agency has come to a definite conclusion: the Zika virus is an emergency.
The designation can only be made when "an extraordinary event ... is determined ... to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease; and to potentially require a coordinated international response."
WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan issued a statement Monday, reading in part, "The experts agreed that a causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven .... In their view, a coordinated international response is needed to minimize the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread .... I have accepted this advice."
During a teleconference on Monday which lasted 3 hours and 45 minutes, the committee was briefed on the known data related to the Zika virus, including its geographical spread, and its potential connection to microcephaly, a severe disability in infants, and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a rare syndrome which may cause paralysis. They also noted there is no vaccine for the disease, and there's no immunity built up among residents in recently affected areas.
The committee recommended that the WHO immediately implement measures to standardize surveillance of both diseases, especially in areas where Zika is known to be transmissible, and to research causal links between Zika and these diseases. According to a WHO statement, the committee "highlights" the critical importance of aggressively fighting infection, especially in women of childbearing age or who are currently pregnant. As for long-term measures, the committee recommended that vaccine research be accelerated, and that areas where Zika is known to thrive prepare their medical infrastructures for the diseases associated with Zika.
Critically, the WHO will require medical bodies to rapidly share any data regarding Zika, microcephaly and/or GBS with the WHO, so that the disease may be tracked and analyzed in real time.
The committee also made several other "precautionary" recommendations, all of which can be read at the WHO website.
The Zika virus is particularly sinister because it hides in broad daylight. Most people who contract the virus never show symptoms, and those who do may experience it as no worse than the flu or a bad cold. The virus was first discovered in the Zika Forest of Uganda in 1947.
According to the Washington Post, the WHO has only classified three other epidemics as Public Health Emergencies of International Concern: the 2009 swine flu epidemic, the re-emergence of polio in Pakistan and Syria in 2014, and the explosion of Ebola in West Africa that same year.
Unlike Ebola, which kills half of the people it infects, Zika has a low risk of death for its host. The WHO will not suggest restrictions on travel and trade to Zika-affected regions.
Photo: Pan American Health Organization | Flickr