- The World Health Organization Director-General, Margaret Chan, on Thursday announced that the WHO will convene an emergency committee on the Zika virus to determine whether the virus' spread has become a "public health emergency of international concern."
- Speaking to the WHO's executive board, Chan warned of the "explosive spread" of Zika and said the level of alarm had become extremely high.
- President Obama was briefed on Zika earlier this week and he emphasized the need to speed up the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines.
Since the beginning of Zika's outbreak in Brazil in May 2015, the virus has spread to 22 other countries and territories in the Americas. In November, the Brazilian Health Ministry linked the virus to the increased prevalence of microcephaly, or abnormally small heads, in newborns.
Although the WHO has not established a causal connection between Zika and microcephaly, Chan said a link is "strongly suspected." Brazil has seen nearly 4,000 cases of microcephaly reported in 2015, compared to less than 150 in 2014.
"The level of alarm is extremely high," Chain said in her briefing to the WHO executive board. She pointed to four reasons why the organization has become so concerned. The possible links between Zika and microcephaly have vaulted the virus' risk "from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions."
Furthermore, the lack of population immunity and absence of any treatments or tests increase the threat. Finally, as Zika is spread by mosquitos, there is greater potential for an international outbreak of the virus.
The emergency committee will decide whether Zika is a public health emergency of international concern and would provide recommendations for the countries affected to prevent the virus' spread. These recommendations would cover travel restrictions, surveillance, and infection control procedures.
Chan has previously convened emergency committees on the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, polio eradication efforts, the Middle East respiratory syndrome, and the recent West African Ebola outbreak, according to Stat.
People infected by the Zika virus typically experience a mild fever, skin rash, or conjunctivitis for 2 days to a week. The mild symptoms in adults, coupled with the low prominence of previous outbreaks, have contributed to the relative obscurity of the virus prior to its spread throughout the Americas. There are no current treatments of vaccines.
The emergency committee will meet in Geneva on February 1st. The WHO already is ramping up surveillance in countries affected or at risk of an outbreak.