The World Health Organization has just declared the Zika Virus outbreak in Latin America to be a “public health emergency of international concern.”

At a press conference this evening in Geneva, WHO director General Margaret Chan stressed that this declaration was a precautionary measure. The WHO says that the virus itself is not the problem, rather it’s Zika’s association with certain neurological disorders that is the real source of concern. But the challenge, and the real reason for the emergency declaration, is that exact link between Zika and children born with microcephaly is still little understood.

The declaration comes after a long meeting of experts from around the world who met by teleconference to discuss the science of Zika and its possible public health implications. The expert committee did not recommend any travel bans, but did say that pregnant women should take extra precautions, like wearing long sleeves or delaying travel to endemic regions if possible.

The emergency declaration of the WHO kicks into place certain bureaucratic like increased funding and surveillance mechanisms, and processes to streamline international cooperation on studying this disease. “We need a coordinated international response to make sure we get to the bottom of this,” said WHO Director General Margaret Chan.

More Research Needed

Even though the direct link between Zika and microcephaly has not been scientifically proven without further study, the emergency committee that met today examined a 2014 cluster of microcephaly in French Polynesia, and a current cluster in Brazil to recommend that emergency procedures be put in place to accelerate controlled, scientific studies of whether or not there is a causative link. “Clearly there is a temporal and geographic association with the Zika virus,” said the WHO’s Dr. Bruce Aylward.

With an eye clearly toward the ebola experience, for which it received a great deal of criticism, the WHO seems to be exercising an abundance of caution.  “If we don’t do all this work now, and instead wait until the scientific evidence is out, can you imagine what people will say?” said Chan.

Spreading Fast

Meanwhile, there are now 26 countries with confirmed local transmissions of Zika. Costa Rica and Jamaica are the latest to be included in this ever expanding outbreak.

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The WHO is recommending that countries undertake mosquito control efforts to minimize the impact of Zika. Chan stressed that what was needed at this time was “just good, plain public health practice, like vector control.”

Go Deeper

An interview with tropical diseases expert Dr. Peter Hotez

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