By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) – The Zika virus linked to a microcephaly outbreak in Latin America could spread to Africa & Asia, with the world's highest birth rates, the World Health Organization warned as it launched a global response unit against the new emergency.
The WHO on Monday declared an international public health emergency due to Zika's link to thousands of recent birth defects in Brazil.
p> "We've now set up a global response unit which brings together all people across WHO, in headquarters, in the regions, to deal with a formal response using all the lessons we've learned from the Ebola crisis," said Anthony Costello, WHO director for maternal, child & adolescent health.
"The reason it's a global concern is that we are worried that this could moreover spread back to other areas of the world where the population may not be immune," he told a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday.
"And we know that the mosquitos that carry Zika virus – if that association is confirmed – are present … through Africa, parts of southern Europe & many parts of Asia, particularly South Asia…"
Costello added the WHO was drafting "good guidelines" for pregnant women & mustering experts to work on a definition of microcephaly including a standardised measurement of baby heads.
"We believe the association is guilty until proven innocent," he said, referring to the connection drawn in Brazil between the Zika virus & microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads.
"Mass community engagement" in areas with the mosquitos & their breeding grounds, & rapid development of diagnostic tools are essential to curbing the virus, as a vaccine may be years away, said Costello, a paediatrician.
Sanofi has launched a project to develop a vaccine against Zika, the most decisive commitment yet by a major vaccine producer to fight the disease.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
HealthDisease & Medical ConditionsAnthony CostelloWorld Health OrganizationZika virus