The World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus a worldwide public health emergency. Because the infection is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, it’s been closely linked with increased rates of infants with neurological diseases.
The measure was adopted by a committee of independent experts from the United Nations to help accelerate the adoption of international measures, as well as the appropriate research.
After an emergency meeting, the WHO committee stated there is a suspected relationship between the virus transmitted by the mosquito and the increase in cases of microcephaly in newborn children.
The neurological malformation leads to a deformity in the head and brain, making both abnormally small.
Margaret Chan, general director of the organization, made an appeal to the public warning that, although not scientifically proven, the Zika virus poses a huge threat to world health.
“Cases of microcephaly and other neurological disorders and the seriousness of their impact on families constitutes enough of a threat that I have accepted the Committee’s recommendation,” she said.
She made a special plea to pregnant women, asking them to avoid travel to high risk countries.
Despite the criticism she received for taking so long to reach her decision, the WHO assures that it was a difficult issue to deal with, as Zika itself is not considered a serious disease, but its close link to microcephaly and other diseases like Guillain Barre syndrome is cause for fear.
Unfortunately, it was confirmed that the virus is rapidly spreading and is expected to infect 4 million Americans.
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Top priority: controlling the mosquito population
The declaration of a world emergency implies greater investment in research and methods of controlling the epidemic as soon as possible.
In this regard, Chan says the priority for now is to control the Aedes aegypti mosquito that is responsible for the transmission of the virus.
Once again a strong call was sent out to the affected countries to increase public awareness and measures to help reduce the presence of the mosquito.
The WHO does not currently consider the disease to be a reason for restricting travel to affected countries.
However, it is advised to be prepared and increase prenatal care to reduce the risks to pregnant mothers and newborns.
Brazil, country with the most reported cases
So far, Brazil continues to top the list with the most reported cases, not only of infection but also of babies with microcephaly possibly associated with the disease.
There were 270 confirmed cases and another 3,449 under study, compared to 147 in 2014.
It’s estimated that around 1.5 million people have been infected by the virus in this South American country since April. This figure is followed by Colombia, with 20,000 confirmed cases at the last report, 2,000 of which are pregnant women.
It has spread to 24 countries
The South American Health Organization warned that 24 countries have already been affected by the rapid spread of the Zika virus: 22 in America, one in Africa and another in the Pacific.
So far, all that’s known is that the virus is transmitted by the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Further study is needed to determine if the disease can be spread by other means, like sexually, for example.
There is no current treatment to combat the virus and it could take a year or even longer to develop a vaccine.
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For now, affected countries like Colombia, Brazil, Honduras and the Dominican Republic are recommending women avoid pregnancy in the coming months, or at least until more is known about the Zika virus and its link to neurological problems in developing fetuses.
They advise staying away from sources of standing water, using insect repellents and covering exposed skin with clothing.