World Health Organization declares Zika virus a global health emergency

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The World Health Organization has declared the spread of the Zika virus in the Americas to be a global health emergency, calling for a coordinated international response to the mosquito-transmitted virus.

WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, speaking after a meeting in Geneva on Monday, said a coordinated international response is needed to improve surveillance, detection of cases and the detection of congenital malformations.

Although the WHO’s Emergency Committee declared the virus a global health emergency, the committee found no public health justification to impose restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of the virus.

“At present, the most important protective measures against Zika virus are the control of mosquito populations, the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women,” Dr. Chan said.

Speaking at a briefing last week, Chan said she was “deeply concerned” about the potential for further international spread and the possible association with birth malformations and neurological syndromes. “We need to get some answers quickly,” she said.

The World Health Organization says the Zika virus was first isolated in 1947 from a monkey in the Zika forest of Uganda, and the mosquito-transmitted virus continued to affect mainly monkeys for nearly 5 more decades. When it did affect humans, it only caused a mild illness that raised no real concern.

That assessment began to change several years ago when Zika expanded beyond a narrow equatorial belt that stretches across Africa and into equatorial Asia. The Federated States of Micronesia recorded the first human outbreak of the virus in 2007, which was followed by large outbreaks in 4 additional Pacific island countries in 2013 and 2014.

Health experts have pointed out that the Zika virus became associated with neurological complications during an outbreak in French Polynesia, which happened at a time when the dengue virus was also affecting the island nation. “That was a unique feature, but difficult to interpret,” Dr. Chan said earlier.

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