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WHO: Birth Defect Linked To Zika Virus Is 'Public Health Emergency'

Health workers fumigate to wipe out mosquitoes in Recife, Brazil.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
Health workers fumigate to wipe out mosquitoes in Recife, Brazil.

The World Health Organization announced Monday a public health emergency. The cause for alarm is the cluster of birth defects among babies born to mothers infected with the Zika virus, which has spread rapidly through Brazil and much of Latin America since 2015.

By declaring the spread of the virus and its suspected link to neurological problems in newborns and adults as well a "public health emergency of international concern," WHO will be able to tap into a $15 million emergency fund to combat the outbreak while sending a loud message that people should take Zika seriously.

Dr. Margaret Chan, head of WHO, certainly was serious. She called the possible impact of the virus "an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world." She made the announcement Monday at a press conference from Geneva. The thousands of reported cases of microcephaly in Brazil, in which babies are being born with abnormally small heads, Chan said, constitutes "an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world."

Chan said the mosquito-borne Zika virus has been strongly linked with birth defects in Brazil and also in French Polynesia during a 2014 Zika outbreak.

In declaring a public health emergency, Chan called on countries to step up surveillance not only for the virus but for cases of microcephaly and other neurological conditions.

She also called for a coordinated global response to Zika. The current outbreak has reached 25 countries mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean. The newest countries added to the list by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are Costa Rica, Curacao and Nicaragua, along with the U.S. territory of American Samoa.

WHO, however, is not making any recommendations to avoid travel to Zika-affected countries. Chan said even pregnant women could visit these places if they take proper precautions. Wear long-sleeve clothes, she said, and use insect repellent especially in the daytime, when the mosquitoes that carry the virus are active.

"Avoid activities outdoor," she said. "If you like to take an afternoon nap sleep under bed net. So these are measures that can be done to minimize [the] chance of infection."

While Chan is encouraging pregnant travelers to protect themselves with bed nets, officials in several Latin American countries have gone so far as to recommend that women not get pregnant for the next year or more.

WHO officials said Monday's emergency declaration should help mobilize global research on a Zika vaccine.

Gary Whittaker, a virologist at Cornell, says a vaccine for Zika should be doable.

"In terms of a vaccine the good news is that there's already a fair amount of knowledge in related viruses," said Whittaker, whose research focuses on emerging viruses.

Zika is fairly similar to the viruses that cause yellow fever and dengue. Whittaker says existing vaccines for those viruses could serve as templates in the development of a Zika inoculation.

"There [are] going to be some differences obviously because it is a different virus," he said, "but there's a lot of basic information which can be translated fairly readily."

Even with that optimistic outlook, he says, vaccine development takes time and money. According to the National Institutes of Health, a new vaccine can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and takes on average 15 years to develop.

Researchers currently working on a Zika vaccine say under a best-case scenario, they hope to have a product ready to deploy in three to four years.

And while WHO's declaration releases some funds for research, it's nowhere near the amount of money it would take to develop a new vaccine.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
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