The World Health Organization declared the Zika Virus outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Monday, after convening an international Emergency Committee meeting.
The experts who were in attendance during the teleconference discussed a possible connection between the contagious disease and the rise in congenital malformations and neurological complications in infants whose mothers contracted the virus during pregnancy.
WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan clarifies that the relationship between Zika and neurological complications is still uncertain, considering the evidences connecting the two are mostly circumstantial. Although experts have agreed that the suspected link is a cause for concern and must be taken into consideration in studies attempting to learn more about the disease.
Zika Virus has been around for decades. In fact, it was first observed in monkeys in 1947, when researchers from the Rockefeller Foundation were conducting a research for Yellow Fever in the Zika Forest of Uganda. Instances of Zika virus in humans arose every now and then, but cases were mostly in equatorial regions. The symptoms were also mild enough that it could be left alone until it clears within a week, just like any normal fever.
"Zika virus doesn't stay in the blood for very long, only a matter of days. The CDC says up to seven days. But it doesn't stay a long time like Ebola or Hepatitis C," Georgetown Infectious Disease Specialist Daniel Lucey said
What Is Microcephaly And Why Is It Only A Big Concern Now?
Microcephaly is a condition wherein an infant's head is abnormally small. While around 15 percent of microcephaly cases end with the children having a small head, 85 percent extends to the brain, causing neurological problems that leave them physically and mentally challenged their entire life.
The latest outbreaks made health experts suspect the ugly possibility that Zika and microcephaly, as well as other neurological disorders, may be linked after all. Moreover, the rarity of Zika cases prior to the surge of Zika cases in Brazil in 2014 may be the reason why it was not given much attention.
In other words, microcephaly and its possible link with Zika is put under the spotlight now because there are more observable cases, unlike in the past when Zika was less of a problem for the global community and Microcephaly was treated as a separate neurological abnormality.
Link Between Zika And Microcephaly
As of October 2015, there have been more than 4,000 cases of microcephaly recorded in Brazil. The number of microcephaly cases spiked at the same time the Zika outbreak happened, which is the main reason why WHO is looking into the possible link between the two.
Take note, however, that despite the circumstantial evidence linking the two conditions, only six cases of microcephaly out of the thousands have been definitively linked to Zika infection via laboratory tests.
Still, WHO is taking the possibility seriously by generating more studies the same time it is trying to suppress the outbreaks.
"The level of alarm is extremely high. ... A causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth malformations and neurological syndromes has not yet been established, but is strongly suspected," Chan wrote in a brief for the Executive Board.
"The possible links ... have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika, from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions, " she added.
The Future Of Zika And Microcephaly
Zika does not have a vaccine yet, and experts say that everyone will have to wait a while longer before a working medicine is developed.
Unless a medical expert has a Eureka moment and accidentally discovers a vaccine or cure for the virus ahead of time, all WHO can do is to observe Zika cases and see if more cases of microcephaly can be linked to it.
What everyone can do, especially pregnant women or women of childbearing age, is to protect themselves from carrier mosquitoes, especially since the El Niño phenomenon could increase the mosquito population.