Zika outbreak triggers global public health emergency


The suspected link between the mosquito-borne Zika and the birth defect microcephaly was enough to trigger the declaration of a public health emergency by the WHO.


WASHINGTON, United States, Tuesday February 2, 2016 – The fast spreading Zika virus and its link to birth defects have been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization (WHO).

But the WHO said there was no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade.

The mosquito-borne illness has spread to about two dozen countries in the Americas –including Caribbean and/or CARICOM nations Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Haiti, Suriname, Venezuela, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, US Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic.

The decision to declare the situation an international health emergency was taken yesterday, after experts examined patterns of the recent spread of the virus and the broad geographical distribution of the Aedes mosquito that transmits the virus, and the relationship between infection with Zika and a rise in cases of congenital malformations, such as microcephaly.

There have been about 4,000 reported cases of microcephaly – a condition where babies are born with underdeveloped brains – in Brazil alone since last October.

“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,” WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan said following the meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee.

“The evidence is growing and it’s getting strong. So I accepted, even on microcephaly alone, that it is sufficient to call an emergency.”

The WHO said a coordinated international response is needed to minimize the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread. The focus will be on improving detection of infections, congenital malformations, and neurological complications; intensifying the control of mosquito populations; and expediting the development of tests and vaccines to protect people at risk, especially during pregnancy.

However, unlike the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the international health agency made no suggestion that travel should be restricted to countries where Zika exists.

“The Committee found no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus,” a statement from Dr. Chan said.

“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 Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in Uganda, and for years lived mostly in monkeys. But last May in Brazil, cases began increasing drastically. The WHO has estimated that four million people could be infected by the end of the year.

Currently, there is no vaccine or medication to stop Zika.

This is the fourth time the WHO has used a public health emergency of international concern classification. Previous incidents included the Ebola outbreak in 2014, a resurgence of polio earlier that same year, and the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.

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