Zika virus Global Emergency Declared By WHO, More Countries Added To CDC List

Amid a growing number of confirmed cases of the Zika virus, and an increase in concerns about the potential health side effects, the World Health Organization has classified the virus as an international health emergency that requires immediate attention. 

The announcement came after an emergency meeting of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Health Regulations (IHR) emergency committee Monday. The group moved to classify the Zika virus as a world health emergency, calling for improved research, testing and surveillance.

Investigators have raised concerns over a risk of neurological conditions seen in areas affected by the Zika virus, including a type of paralysis known as Guillain-Barre. The virus has also been linked to concerns that pregnant women infected may give birth to infants with a severe defect, known as microcephaly.

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Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also known to carry dengue, yellow fever and Chikungunya viruses. Zika typically causes fever, maculopapular rashes, arthralgia, conjunctivitis and severe cases require hospitalization. However, 80 percent of those infected never experience symptoms.

Thousands of cases of microcephaly have been diagnosed in Brazil in 2015. Prior to the outbreak in Brazil, a similar cluster of Zika and neurological problems was seen in French Polynesia in 2014.

Different clusters of the virus in different countries constitutes public health emergency that may threaten other parts of the world, according to the WHO.

The WHO committee did not recommend travel restrictions or suspending trade with countries with the Zika virus. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has.

More countries have confirmed cases of Zika virus in the past few weeks. Last week, the list of affected areas with travel advisories expanded to include 8 more countries and now that list has expanded further adding American Samoa, Costa Rica, Curacao, and Nicaragua, for a total of 28 countries with travel advisories by the CDC.

Zika Virus Prevention and Treatment

The WHO meeting called for increased surveillance of the virus, especially in known transmission areas, increased protective measures that are aggressively implemented to reduce risk, and increased diagnostic measures to diagnosis and treat patients quickly.

The committee also called for increased research into the virus to determine whether there is a definitive connection between Zika and microcephaly. Currently the connection is strongly suspected, but not scientifically proven. Some researchers have found genetic material from Zika identified in studies of brain tissue, and placenta from some infants with microcephaly.

Lack of vaccines and rapid reliable diagnostic tests are of high concern to WHO and other government health agencies, including the CDC. An emergency declaration typically triggers increased funding and research.

However, WHO says the most important protective measures are control of mosquito populations and prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women. WHO estimates up to 4 million people in the Americas will be affected by the virus by next year.

Nine people in New York who recently returned from affected countries tested positive for Zika. To that end, Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state will offer free advanced tests for people with symptoms of Zika.

In response to the Zika emergency, the CDC has classified the virus as a notifiable condition, calling on doctors to contact state health departments if they suspect or encounter patients who are affected. The CDC also calls on pediatricians to work closely with obstetricians to care for affected pregnant women and their fetus.

The CDC is urging pregnant women to postpone trips to Zika affected regions. Health officials enacted new guidelines for treating pregnant women and are calling on doctors to question all pregnant women about recent travel to affected regions.

U.S. health officials say they may enact a new precaution to prevent the spread of the virus by not allowing people who have traveled to regions affected by Zika to donate blood. The program calls on patients to defer from donation for one to three years.

Last week, President Obama called for the rapid development of tests and vaccines and U.S. health officials  are beginning studies to determine the link between Zika and birth defects. Another study estimates Zika virus could reach highly populated regions of the U.S., including the East and West Coast and Midwest, affecting 200 million people.

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