World Health Organisation Director-General Margaret Chan has declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in a statement given on Feb. 1 following reports of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders linked to the Zika virus. Zika is now placed in the same category of concern as Ebola and Chan described it as an extraordinary event that needs immediate research and aid to deal with the infection.
Since no vaccines or quick and reliable diagnostic tests and population immunity are available yet, WHO urges an international response to reduce the threat in affected countries. Preventing the spread to other countries is also a high priority.
According to WHO, nations must cooperate to improve the surveillance, the identification of infection, bolster mosquito population control, reduce congenital malformation and neurological complications, accelerate the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to increase the protection of people at risk, especially pregnant women.
Chan notes that 18 experts and advisers have assessed the strong link between the infection with the Zika virus and an increase in congenital malformation and neurological complications. However, the causal relationship between the Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is not yet scientifically proven, hence, the Director-General insists upon further studies to investigate and understand the association through international efforts.
According to BBC News, there were about 4,000 cases of microcephaly reported in Brazil alone since October 2015. Usually, infections are mild and cause few or no symptoms but the Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare paralysis disorder, has been observed in some cases.
Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, says Zika has exposed the world’s vulnerability to emerging infectious diseases and the destruction these can cause. Farrar advises the need for improved health reforms and systems and better research plans to make health systems worldwide impervious to future pandemics.
Currently, controlling mosquito populations and preventing mosquito bites are the best strategies people resort to. No restrictions on travel or trade have been declared.