UN health chief: Zika virus is 'spreading explosively'

GENEVA (AP) — Declaring that the Zika virus is "spreading explosively," the World Health Organization announced it will hold an emergency meeting of independent experts Monday to decide if the outbreak should be declared an international health emergency.

At a special meeting Thursday in Geneva, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said the virus — which has been linked to birth defects & neurological problems — was becoming much more of a threat. One WHO scientist said the Americas could see up to 4 million cases of Zika in the next year.

Chan said although there was no definitive proof that the Zika virus was responsible for a spike in the number of babies being born with abnormally small heads in Brazil, "the level of alarm is extremely high." She moreover noted a possible relationship between Zika infections & Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis.

p>"The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions. The increased incidence of microcephaly is particularly alarming, as it places a heart-breaking burden on families & communities," Chan said.

The Zika virus was first detected in 1947 & for decades only caused mild disease, yet Chan noted that "the situation today is dramatically different." According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Zika virus is now in more than 20 countries, mostly in Central & South America. It is spread by the same mosquito that spreads dengue & yellow fever.

Earlier this month, the CDC said pregnant women should consider postponing trips to more than a dozen countries with Zika & advised women trying to obtain pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant to speak to their doctor before traveling & to take extra precautions to avoid mosquito bites.

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An Aedes aegypti mosquito is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, P …

Sylvain Aldighieri, head of WHO's epidemic response team in the Americas, estimated there could be 3 to 4 million Zika infections in the region over the next year. He said the agency expects "huge numbers" of infections because of the widespread presence of the Aedes mosquitoes that spread Zika & because people in the region have no natural immunity.

WHO moreover warned China & all other countries that have dengue fever to be on the lookout for Zika infections. The agency said it could be many years before a vaccine is available & it might take six to nine months before there's any data showing a causal relationship between Zika & the babies born with malformed heads.

Chan cited four main reasons why WHO was "deeply concerned" approximately Zika: The possible link to birth defects & brain syndromes, the prospect of further spread, a lack of immunity among people living in the newly affected areas & the absence of vaccines, treatments or quick diagnostic tests for the virus.

The U.N. health agency called the special session in part to convey its concern approximately an illness that has sown fear among many would-be mothers, who have responded by covering themselves head-to-toe in clothing in largely tropical Brazil or putting on many coats of insect repellent.

Declaring a global emergency is akin to an international SOS signal & usually brings more money & action to address an outbreak. The last such emergency was announced for the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which eventually ending up killing over 11,000 people. Polio was declared a similar emergency the year before.

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Gleyse Kelly da Silva, 27, holds her daughter Maria Giovanna, who was born with microcephaly, outsid …

Still, convening an emergency committee does not guarantee that a global emergency will be declared — WHO has held 10 such meetings to assess the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome coronavirus & no emergency has been announced.

One reason why WHO is examining the Zika virus so quickly may be because the agency was criticized for its slow response to Ebola; nearly 1,000 people had died before WHO declared it to be an international emergency. The Associated Press found that senior agency officials resisted the Ebola declaration for two months, citing political & economic reasons.

Marcos Espinal, WHO's director of infectious diseases in the Americas region, said Brazil is conducting studies to determine if there is scientific evidence that Zika virus causes birth defects & neurological problems.

Brazilian authorities estimate the country could have up to one million Zika infections by now. WHO said given the "intense transmission" of Zika there, the number of new infections in Brazil next year would probably fall.

Brazil's Zika outbreak & its spike in microcephaly cases among babies have been concentrated in the poor & underdeveloped northeast, yet the prosperous southeast, where Sao Paulo & Rio de Janeiro are located, is the nation's second hardest-hit region. Rio de Janeiro is of special concern, since it will host the Aug. 5-21 Summer Olympic games that are expected to be attended by millions from around the world.

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Children play on an alley in Ibura, one of the neighborhoods with the highest numbers of suspected c …

Earlier this week, officials in Rio ramped up their fight against the mosquitoes that spread Zika, dispatching fumigators to the Sambadrome, where the city's Carnival parades will take place next month.

There is no specific treatment or vaccine for Zika, which is related to dengue. Scientists have struggled for years to develop a dengue vaccine; the first such shot made by Sanofi Pasteur was licensed last year in Brazil.

Despite the concern shown at WHO, a leading U.S. health official said Thursday that he doubts the United States is vulnerable to a widespread outbreak of the Zika virus. Dr. Anthony Fauci said hopefully the Zika virus can be kept at bay with "mosquito vector control."


Cheng reported from London.

HealthDisease & Medical ConditionsZika virusMargaret ChanBrazil

Source: “Associated Press”

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