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WHO Declares World Health Emergency Over Zika Virus

mosquito taking blood

The World Health Organization on Monday declared the spread of the Zika virus an international public health emergency, a rare move that signals the seriousness of the outbreak and gives countries powerful new tools to fight it.

The outbreak of Zika, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, began in Brazil last May and has moved into more than 20 countries in Latin America.

The designation was recommended by a committee of independent experts, and should help fast-track international action and research priorities.

WHO chief Margaret Chan said the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly was “strongly suspected but not yet scientifically proven.”

She said there was no reason to introduce restrictions on travel, but that mosquito control was the top concern.

The U.N. health agency warned last week that the mosquito-borne virus was “spreading explosively” in the Americas, with up to 4 million cases expected in the region this year.

The claim comes ahead of WHO’s emergency meeting, with notional vaccine-testing on pregnant women a ‘practical and ethical nightmare

The WHO is under pressure to act quickly in the fight against Zika, after admitting it was slow to respond to the Ebola outbreak that ravaged parts of west Africa.

Although the mosquito-borne virus’s symptoms are relatively mild, it is believed to be linked to a surge in cases of microcephaly, a condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain.

Zika is also suspected of links to a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Brazil, the hardest hit country, sounded the alarm in October, when a rash of microcephaly cases emerged in the north-east.

Since then, there have been 270 confirmed cases of microcephaly and 3,448 suspected cases, up from 147 in 2014.

Amid concern over the surge in microcephaly cases, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica and Puerto Rico have warned women to delay conceiving until the Zika outbreak is brought under control.

Jitters over Zika have spread far beyond the affected areas to Europe and North America, where dozens of cases have been identified among people returning from vacation or business abroad.

There is currently no treatment for the Zika virus, and the WHO has said it would likely take more than a year to develop a vaccine.

The virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads dengue fever and the chikungunya virus. It produces flu-like symptoms including a low-grade fever, headaches, joint pain and rashes.

The WHO has so far refrained from issuing travel warnings related to Zika, stressing that the most effective form of prevention is getting rid of stagnant water where mosquitos easily breed, and personal protection against mosquito bites such as using repellant and sleeping under mosquito nets.

The main worry is the virus’s possible link to microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with brain damage and unusually small heads.

Reported cases of microcephaly are rising sharply in Brazil where Zika is raging, though researchers have yet to establish a direct link.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy has been reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean region since 1989. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is originally from Detroit, Michigan.

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