The World Health Organization declared (WHO) the Zika virus and its suspected link to birth defects an international public health emergency on Monday. An outbreak of the Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, was detected in Brazil last May and has since moved into more than 20 countries in Latin America.
Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the W.H.O, said that clusters of microcephaly in regions with Zika cases constitute an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world.
Dr. Chan said case control studies on the connection between Zika and microcephaly will start in the next two weeks.
The WHO has been 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.
A mosquito transmitted infection originally discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 the virus is common in Africa and Asia. 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.
Brazil’s president signed a measure on Monday allowing health officials access to any building to eradicate breeding grounds for a mosquito spreading the Zika virus. The measure signed by President Dilma Rousseff allows health officials access to all homes, public and private buildings even if the property’s owner cannot be located.
Pregnant women and their babies are at the highest risk from the virus, which doesn’t spread directly from person to person. Most people with Zika have no symptoms, but some develop a rash, joint pain, a low fever, pink eye and headaches.
The Minister of Health, Prof Isaac Adewole, issues a travel alert to pregnant women from Nigeria not to travel to Brazil and other Latin American countries.
Jimmy Whitworth, an infectious diseases expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said we might soon see other babies born with malformed heads as the virus becomes entrenched in other countries.
The W.H.O. has declared a public health emergency three times since 2007, when it first established the procedure for the influenza pandemic in 2009; in 2014 when polio seemed resurgent; and in August 2014 for Ebola. Some experts applauded the decision to add Zika to the list.
The UN 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.