(CN) – An emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency Monday, in an effort to stem the spread of the virus before its symptoms and effects are fully known.
The threat of mosquito-borne Zika has grown steadily throughout Latin America, after the virus was initially diagnosed in Brazil this past May. It has since spread to 24 other nations and territories, with as many as 4,000 suspected cases.
Studies are being conducted simultaneously and the WHO’s emergency designation will allow affected regions to receive international support to fight the virus, which has been theoretically linked to microcephaly.
“Members of the committee agreed that the situation meets the conditions for a public health emergency of international concern,” WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan said. “In their view, a coordinated international response is needed to minimize the threat in effected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread.”
Zika gained international attention after its rapid expansion across Latin America and because of its potential connection to microcephaly, a condition that causes children to be born with smaller than normal heads and brain damage.
“At present, the most important protective measures are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women,” Chan said.
The virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, and is not thought to be communicable between people. But many Latin American nations do not have the necessary precautions in place to fight off the mosquitoes and keep them away from where humans live – making the disease difficult to contain.
“There’s much more indoor-outdoor living with no air conditioning and no window screens. That’s one of the things probably contributing to how fast it’s spreading,” Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director for epidemiology and immunization services for San Diego County, told Courthouse News.
McDonald said that besides the difference in housing in the United States and Latin America, counties across the United States have various preventative measures set up to stem the potential impact and spread of mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus.
“We’ve had vector (animals or insects that can transmit diseases) control districts set up since the 1800s,” McDonald said. “Ours is guarded more against West Nile virus, and other parts of the country have different focuses.”
Typical preventative measures include finding where mosquitoes are breeding, treating green pools and distributing mosquito fish. Such strategies may now be feasible in poorer Latin American nations with the WHO’s the emergency declaration and accompanying financial support.
In addition to limiting the growth of mosquito populations and other preventative measures, a firmer understanding of the connection between Zika and microcephaly is also needed.
“A causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven,” the WHO’s Chan noted. “All (committee members) agreed on the urgent need to coordinate international efforts to investigate and understand this relationship better.”
In the meantime, McDonald recommended that people traveling to areas affected by the virus look through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website and talk to their primary-care doctors.
“Just like you put your passport documents in order, you should put your health care situation in order,” McDonald said. “That’s probably our biggest message.”
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