The outbreak of the zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean, potentially linked to a recent rise in numbers of babies born with smaller heads, has been declared a global public health emergency by the World Health Organization.
Following an emergency meeting on the virus, WHO’s director-general Dr Margaret Chan said a co-ordinated international effort was needed to minimise the threat to babies in affected countries and to reduce the risk of further spread.
“A co-ordinated international response is needed to improve surveillance, the detection of infections…to intensify the control of mosquito populations”
The virus is transmitted mainly through mosquitos and Dr Chan said controlling the spread of theses insects was the most important measure to be taken at the moment.
Prevention of mosquito bites among pregnant women was needed the most, she said. However, there was no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade, she added.
The zika virus is thought to be causing a rise in the number of babies born with microcephaly, a neurological disorder in which the brain grows to an abnormally small size. However, this link is yet to be confirmed.
A panel of 18 WHO experts agreed there was an “urgent” need to co-ordinate international efforts to better understand the link between zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly.
The lack of vaccines and rapid and reliable diagnostic tests, in addition to there being no population immunity in newly-affected countries were cited as further causes for concern by the experts.
The virus has spread to nearly 20 countries since May 2015, including Brazil, Mexico, Barbados and Puerto Rico.
WHO declares zika virus global public health emergency
In Brazil, within nine months of the outbreak, cases of microcephaly had reached more than 3,350 – compared with the expected annual 200 cases.
Midwives in the UK have already been advised to encourage pregnant women to “carefully consider” whether to travel to the affected areas.
In a statement Dr Chan said: “I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.
“A co-ordinated 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, especially during pregnancy,” she said.