MS Risk Blog

WHO Declares Zika Virus a Global Health Emergency

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The World Health Organization on February 1 declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus an international health emergency due to its links to thousands of birth defects. WHO Director Margaret Chan said that coordinated action was needed to improve detection and expedite work on a vaccine and better diagnostics for the disease. The UN agency is concerned about a surge in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with small heads and underdeveloped brains. Chan said it was strongly suspected that Zika causes microcephaly.

This is the fourth time that the World Health Organization has declared a public health emergency since such procedures were put in place in 2007. Emergency declarations are meant as international SOS and usually brings more money and action to address the outbreak, as well as prompting research into possible treatments and vaccines.

The United Nations health agency said the Zika infection was spreading rapidly and could infect as many as 4 million people in the Americas. According to the Pan American Health Organization, the virus has spread in 24 nations and regions in the Americas.

On January 15, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised pregnant woman to postpone travel to more than dozen countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean to avoid infection with the virus. The agency raised the alert level for travellers to Haiti, El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela.

Brazil is experiencing the largest known outbreak of Zika. On January 21, Brazilian health authorities said that the number of babies with microcephaly since October had reached nearly 4.000. The Health Ministry said that the surge was caused by the outbreak of Zika virus. On February 4, President Dilma Rousseff declared war on mosquitoes responsible for spreading the virus. Dilma announced that 220.000 members of the armed forces would go door to door to help to battle the mosquitoes.

Zika virus was first identified in monkeys in Uganda in 1947. The first human case was detected in Nigeria in 1954 and there have been further outbreaks in Africa, East Asia and the Pacific Islands. The most common symptoms of Zika virus are mild fever, conjunctivitis (red, sore eyes), headache, joint pain and rash. There is no vaccine or drug treatment so patients are advised to rest and drink plenty of fluids.

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