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By Gary Evans, Senior Staff Writer
Citing microcephaly birth defects and other “neurological disorders” linked to Zika virus, the World Health Organization declared the mosquito-borne outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern today, Feb. 1, 2016.
“A coordinated 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,” the WHO said in making the announcement.
The Committee found no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus. However, the Centers for Disease control and Prevention has discouraged pregnant women from traveling to regions were the virus is spreading by mosquitoes, which includes many nations in Central and South America.
At present, the most important protective measures are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women, the WHO said. In assessing the level of threat, 18 WHO experts and advisers looked in particular at the strong association, in time and place, between infection with the Zika virus and a rise in detected cases of congenital malformations and neurological complications. The experts agreed that a causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven. All agreed on the urgent need to coordinate international efforts to investigate and understand this relationship better.
The experts also considered patterns of recent spread and the broad geographical distribution of mosquito species that can transmit the virus. Finally the lack of vaccines and rapid and reliable diagnostic tests, and the absence of population immunity in newly affected countries were cited as further causes for concern. After a review of the evidence, the Committee advised that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes an “extraordinary event” and a public health threat to other parts of the world.
AHC Media is dedicated to covering developments in this ongoing story. In addition to breaking news on our homepage, the cover story of April ED Management outlines what hospitals need to do to prepare for a potential outbreak. The March issue of Hospital Infection Control & Prevention contains a trio of stories examining the latest Zika developments, including combating the spread of the virus via sexual transmission. Additionally, the March issue of Hospital Employee Health contains a story about protecting pregnant healthcare workers from contracting the virus.