WHO: Zika’s Possible Link With Birth Defect “A Public Health Emergency”

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) —  World Health  officials met Monday for an emergency session to decide whether the mosquito-borne Zika virus should be considered a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

The virus’ possible link to a birth defect called microcephaly and other health issues is what concerned them.

“The committee advised that the causes of microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan. “Members of the committee agree that the situation meets the conditions for a public health emergency of international concern.”

Florida health officials issued a statement following Monday’s announcement saying, “The Florida Department of Health is working with partners, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The department is closely monitoring the situation. Florida is well equipped and prepared to address emerging health threats, including Zika.”

To be clear, WHO officials and experts do not consider the Zika virus a public health emergency alone but instead consider the cluster of the possible effects a public health concern.

Chan called for action and coordination around the world to fight the spread of the virus.

“As a precautionary measure, a coordinated international response is needed,” said Chan.

Chan went on to say no travel or trade restrictions are needed.

“The committee has no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of the Zika virus,” she said.

WHO emergency committee experts recommended more emphasis on the control of the mosquito population affected by the virus as well as prevention of mosquito bites to stop the spread of Zika.

The meeting comes as there are a growing number of cases around the world.

Brazil reported its first case of the Zika virus in May 2015. Since then, the disease has spread to at least 22 other countries.

The virus has been linked to birth defects like abnormally small heads at birth (Microcephaly) or Guillain-Barré syndrome in which the immune system attacks the nervous system.

WHO officials Monday recommended stepped up research to determine a possible causal link between the virus and Microcephaly.  Professor David L. Heymann, the chair to the emergency committee, said it is not known how long it will take to find out if there is a possible link.

Related: CDC Releases Guidelines For Infants Infected With Zika Virus 

Despite a confirmation of a link, the arrival of the virus in some of the countries has resulted in a steep increase in Microcephaly.

In response, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a travel alert  warning pregnant women or women trying to get pregnant to avoid travel to the affected countries.

A number of airlines are letting pregnant women change their flights including American, LAN, Tam, United and British Airways. Cruise lines like Carnival and Norwegian are also giving them the option to reschedule.

The CDC map shows the countries and territories with active Zika virus transmission (Source: CDC)

The CDC map shows the countries and territories with active Zika virus transmission (Source: CDC)

WHO officials says they are supporting efforts to scale up and strengthen surveillance systems in countries where the virus has spread and those in which the virus may spread.

So far, three cases of the Zika virus have been confirmed in Florida. All were infected while traveling to and from affected countries.

While there is no vaccine for the virus, there are ways to prevent the spread of the virus. The CDC issued some tips:

  • Use insect repellent that contains things like DEET, picaridin, IR3535, and some oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol products.
  • Treat clothing with permethrin.
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Use air conditioning or windows/door screens to keep mosquitoes out.
  • Reduce the amount of mosquitoes inside and outside your home or hotel by emptying standing water from containers.

Click here for more information.

More from Giovanna Maselli
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