- On Monday, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a “public health emergency of international concern.”
- In Brazil, over one million individuals have already been infected by the mosquito-borne virus, which has been connected to cases of microcephaly, a disease in which babies born to infected mothers have underdeveloped brains.
- Last week, the organization stated the virus, which is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, is "spreading explosively" through the Americas.
The push to draw global attention to the virus was spurred by “a growing concern” that it could cause birth defects, The New York Times reports. The virus outbreak began in Brazil in May of last year. The virus has quickly spread to more than 20 countries in Central and South America.
Yesterday, an emergency panel convened to discuss the virus. WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan stated in a prepared statement, "[Eighteen] experts agreed that a causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven. All agreed on the urgent need to coordinate international efforts to investigate and understand this relationship better."
Chan added the lack of vaccines and the absence of population immunity in newly affected countries were additional causes for concern.
The latest news comes after a U.S. official last week stated that a Zika outbreak in the U.S. is "unlikely." “Zika is not coming up the coast so you don’t have to worry,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as quoted by ABC Radio.
One potential factor impacting the risk of a global epidemic is that Brazil is slated to host the summer Olympics in 2016.
"The Olympics will be a perfect dissemination vehicle for Zika, as people from all over the world will converge in Brazil and then return to their home countries, which might also harbor Aedes mosquitoes," Amesh Adalja, a senior associate at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told USA Today.
WHO has only declared a public health emergency of this magnitude three times since 2007. The declaration of a public health emergency occurs when there is “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response.”
As Vox notes, the declaration will likely “encourage governments and health agencies in and out of Latin America to research Zika and send resources to places that need them in order to help stop the virus from traveling further.”