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WHO declares public health emergency; Zika-microcephaly relationship ‘strongly suspected’ :
Zika-microcephaly relationship ‘strongly suspected’

February 1, 2016

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency Monday as it continues to investigate whether clusters of microcephaly and other neurological disorders are linked to the Zika virus.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, M.D., M.Sc., said a causal relationship is “strongly suspected” and there is concern due to the patterns of the virus’ spread and lack of vaccines and reliable diagnostic tests.

 

“All agree on the urgent need to coordinate international efforts to investigate and understand this relationship better,” she said.

WHO leaders recently estimated that within a year, 3 million to 4 million people in the Americas could be infected with the virus, which primarily is spread by Aedes mosquitoes. For the 20% who display symptoms, the illness is mild and may include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis.

It was not the virus itself but the clusters of microcephaly in babies whose mothers were infected that led the WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee to declare a “public health emergency of international concern,” according to Dr. Chan.

The committee called for enhanced surveillance for neurological disorders and Zika virus, intensified research to determine whether there is a causative link, development of vaccines and diagnostic tests for Zika, implementation of mosquito control measures and education and counseling for pregnant women who may be at risk.

It stopped short of recommending travel or trade restrictions to more than two dozen countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean where Zika is spreading. However, Dr. Chan acknowledged pregnant women can reduce their risk of infection by delaying travel to affected countries, which is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC added four areas to its travel advisory Monday -- American Samoa, Costa Rica, Curacao, and Nicaragua. For pregnant women who do travel to affected areas, the CDC and WHO stressed the importance of avoiding mosquito bites.

Pediatricians treating infants whose mothers may have been infected with Zika virus can refer to an algorithm the CDC developed in collaboration with the Academy.

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