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Zika Virus Prompts Emergency Meeting Of The World Health Organization


An emergency committee of the World Health Organization is meeting today in Geneva to address that Zika outbreak. The committee is expected to set a framework for how the WHO will respond. NPR's Jason Beaubien joins us now in our DC studio.

Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Yeah, rather busy. We're all over the country this morning.


MONTAGNE: So what do we expect to come out of this WHO meeting?

BEAUBIEN: So this is all about WHO process. This committee is charged with determining two things - one, whether this outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern and then, to come up with temporary recommendations that countries should take to deal with it.

This basically is just how the WHO musters resources and tries to put forward a uniform message to all countries to respond to a health crisis. They did the same thing with Ebola. They've done it with polio. Unfortunately, the WHO, ultimately, is a fairly weak institution. It's constantly begging for money. It doesn't have any real authority to sort of enforce the recommendations. It's just trying to point countries in the right direction and then leave it to the local countries to carry out those policies on the ground.

MONTAGNE: Well, just to remind people of a few things, Zika first turned up in this part of the world, the Americas, less than a year ago in Brazil. It has since spread to nearly two dozen other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. There's concern that Zika may be responsible for thousands of birth defects in Brazil. Does all of that make Zika a public health emergency of international concern, which is basically what WHO is saying?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. We're expecting that they are definitely going to say yes. I mean, this is a crisis that's crossing international boundaries. It's serious in nature, so yeah, we very much expect that they will make that declaration. And once they have done that, then we're going to look for what are the guidance that they're issuing to local countries? Some of this is probably going to be technical advice on how to treat patients. Some of it could be limits on travel or other measures to try to stop Zika from spreading. During the Ebola outbreak, the WHO put in place treatment guidelines for countries, saying anyone who's infected should get this type of care. They also said people with Ebola should not travel, nor should anyone who's been in contact with people who are Ebola. A couple of years ago, they recommended that the last three countries with endemic polio transmission require proof of polio vaccination for anyone trying to fly out of those countries. So there's a range of measures that they could take. Zika has already spread quite far and plus, there's no vaccine. So we're not expecting to see any travel restrictions at this point as part of their recommendations.

MONTAGNE: And what about the medical aspect of this? What are they expected to say about treating and preventing Zika? You just spoke of a vaccine.

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, part of what we're expecting them to come up with is prioritizing what research needs to happen right now to help the entire global community focus on Zika. As I said, there's no vaccine. We also don't have any antiviral. There's no treatment out there, so they're going to be encouraging, you know, governments - the CDC, other, you know, probably private companies, to try to push for coming up with an antiviral. And they'll probably try to tell countries this is what you do to screen for Zika. This is how you should handle a case of microcephaly, these cases of birth defects with the underdeveloped heads that we're seeing in Brazil. And then they're going to be telling everybody to stay away from mosquitoes. The one thing they will probably not weigh in on is pregnancy. Some countries have told women not to get pregnant. The WHO has made it very clear that they're going to stay out of that one and don't want to get involved in making recommendations about women getting pregnant or not.

MONTAGNE: Jason, thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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