WHO declares surge in Zika-linked birth defects a public health emergency

Stat, by Helen Branswell – The rapid increase in the number of severe birth defects possibly tied to the Zika virus constitutes a global health emergency, the World Health Organization declared Monday, as it called for a global coordinated response to learn more about the situation.

Following the advice of an emergency committee of 18 outside experts, the agency’s director, Dr. Margaret Chan, said the surge in Zika-related cases meets the criteria to be declared a “public health emergency of international concern.”

Chan said the gathered experts agreed there appears a causal relationship between the Zika virus outbreak and an increase in cases of serious birth defects and a neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome. That link is not yet proven, the panel said.

“We need a coordinated international response to make sure we get to the bottom of this,” Chan said at a news conference telecast from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

The Zika virus, once thought to be a wimpy cousin of the more severe dengue and chikungunya viruses, has gained global attention in recent weeks. The reason: Health authorities in Brazil reported that country was experiencing a surge in cases of babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly. They said they believe the increase was due to the Zika outbreak that has swept through parts of Brazil starting last May.

The theory is that infection during pregnancy can in some cases induce microcephaly. Several other viruses — notably rubella (German measles) and cytomegalovirus — are known to sometimes trigger this birth defect.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took the extraordinary step last month of urging women who are pregnant not to travel to locations where Zika virus is spreading. Several other countries — Canada and Britain among them — followed suit.

And a number of affected countries in Latin America are recommending that women delay pregnancy — advice that advocacy groups have denounced as unworkable in countries where access to contraceptives may be limited and where abortions are outlawed.

In addition to microcephaly, there is growing evidence that the Zika outbreak in the Americas — now involving about two dozen countries and territories — may be triggering a rise in the number of cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes progressive and generally temporary paralysis.

The WHO has been under pressure to ratchet up its response to the Zika virus outbreak, with global health and international health law experts saying the event warrants being declared a public health emergency.

The virus was first discovered in 1947 in the Zika Forest of Uganda. It has been studied little, however, because it was not seen as a widespread threat to humans. Four out of five people infected show no symptoms and those who do experience something like the flu — fever and achy muscles and joints. People who contract Zika may also develop a raised red rash and-or conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye.

This is the fourth time since the International Health Regulations were revised in 2005 that the WHO has declared a global public health emergency. The previous events were: the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic; the polio eradication effort in May 2014; and West Africa’s devastating Ebola outbreak in August, 2014.

An emergency committee was convened to assess and monitor the ongoing outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome or MERS. It has met 10 times, each time concluding the MERS outbreak does not constitute a global public health emergency.


Helen Branswell can be reached at helen.branswell@statnews.com
Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenBranswell

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