Zika Virus, Birth Defects Are Health Emergency, WHO Says

Municipal Workers Fumigate Homes As Spread Of Zika Virus Intensifies

A worker fumigates the hallway of a building to eradicate mosquitoes in Caracas, Venezuela.

Photographer: Wilfredo Riera/Bloomberg
  • Health officials haven't proven microcephaly, virus link
  • WHO not recommending Latin America travel, trade restrictions

An outbreak of the Zika virus and its potential association with birth defects in South and Central America has been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization, a formal step that will begin coordinating government responses.

Margaret Chan, the director-general of the WHO, said that one of the first priorities should be controlling mosquito populations that have spread the virus. Diagnosis and surveillance of the disease’s spread also needs to be improved, the United Nations-affiliated agency said on its official Twitter account.

The declaration of a public health emergency has to do with clusters of microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and potential developmental problems, that appears to be associated with the virus. There’s an association, though not a scientifically proven link, between women who become infected while pregnant and the birth defect.

The WHO has estimated that there could be 3 million to 4 million cases of the virus in Latin America, and the travel industry has begun to feel the first impacts of worried vacation and business customers who are changing plans to avoid affected areas. Cases have been found in at least 23 countries and territories in the region, as of Jan. 28.

On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added American Samoa, Costa Rica, Curacao and Nicaragua to a travel alert that recommends pregnant women consider postponing visits to those areas. The agency also recommended taking steps to avoid mosquito bites in affected regions.

No Restrictions

The WHO has so far made no recommendations against travel or trade, though an official said at a press conference Monday that pregnant women can consider delaying travel to the region.

The WHO uses the public health emergency declaration to make recommendations to stop the spread of outbreaks and to coordinate government responses. Past declarations have been made for bird flu, in 2009, and a West African outbreak of Ebola, in 2014.

There is no vaccine for the virus, which has long been endemic in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, where many people have immunity. It is new in the Americas, however, and it could take years to develop a treatment or vaccine, which is part of the reason health officials are emphasizing mosquito control to try and stop the virus’s spread.

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