Zika virus + birth defects = international health emergency

The birth defects linked to the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil have led the WHO to declare the epidemic of the mosquito-borne disease a “public health emergency of international concern”. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told the press at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva about “first and foremost the big concern about microcephaly,” even though the link is “strongly suspected but not yet scientifically proven.” She asked – no doubt rhetorically – “can you imagine if we do not do all this work now, and wait until the scientific evidence comes out? Then people will say that, 'Why don't you take action because the mosquito is ubiquitous?”

A committee of 18 independent experts “looked in particular at the strong association, in time and place, between infection with the Zika virus and a rise in detected cases of congenital malformations and neurological complications,” and came to the conclusion “that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil constitutes an “extraordinary event” and a public health threat to other parts of the world.” The emergency designation should “a coordinated international response is needed to improve surveillance, the detection of infections, congenital malformations, and neurological complications, to intensify the control of mosquito populations, and to expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect people at risk” on the fast track.

The question remains whether pregnant women should stay away from the affected countries – 24 so far and counting. “We have to explain to those coming to Brazil (for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August), the athletes, that there is zero risk if you are not a pregnant women,” Brazil’s minister of defiance Jacques Warner told the press in Brasilia. On the other hand, Chan said pregnant women “can consider” travel as long as they cover up, use mosquito repellent, as well as other safety measures. Moreover, “the Committee found no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus;” rather “the most important protective measures are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women.” Thousands of cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil related to the Zika virus, and experts believe other countries in the Americas are likely to report cases of birth defects.

Meanwhile, the CDC has added four more countries and territories to its list of locations that present a risk for Zika infection (American Samoa, Costa Rica, Curacao, and Nicaragua), and the United States said controlling the disease-carrying mosquito is one way of reducing the risk. “At some point here ... we're going to see the temperatures rise (and) that will make for a more hospitable environment for mosquitoes,” White House spokesman Josh ‘and starring Jim Varney as’ Earnest said. “We want to make sure that we have got a strategy to try to limit the spread of this disease when that happens.” An anonymous administration official said that “this is not an Ebola-type situation where you have to stop people at the border,” which a certain someone running for president must find very disappointing.

Related: Is the Zika virus the new Latin American Ebola? WHO’s to say.