In an Emergency Committee held on 1 February, under the International Health Regulations, to gather advice on the severity of the health threat associated with the continuing spread of Zika virus disease in Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Health Organization announced that the explosive spread of the Virus is an “extraordinary event” and declared the Zika virus a “public health emergency of international concern.”
In assessing the level of threat, the 18 experts and advisers looked in particular at the strong association, in time and place, between infection with the Zika virus and a rise in detected cases of congenital malformations and neurological complications.
The 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.
The experts also considered patterns of recent spread and the broad geographical distribution of mosquito species that can transmit the virus.
The lack of vaccines and rapid and reliable diagnostic tests, and the absence of population immunity in newly affected countries were cited as further causes for concern.
After a review of the evidence, the Committee advised that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes an “extraordinary event” and a public health threat to other parts of the world.
In their view, a coordinated international response is needed to minimize the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread.
Members of the Committee agreed that the situation meets the conditions for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
The experts agreed that: a coordinated international response is needed to improve surveillance, the detection of infections, congenital malformations, and neurological complications, to intensify the control of mosquito populations, and to expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect people at risk, especially during pregnancy.
The Committee found no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus.
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.
According to the officials, international health emergency was primarily declared due to ‘cluster of microcephaly and neurologic disorders’ and possible connection to Zika virus.
Officials also say that there is no justifications for restrictions on travel and that the top concern is mosquito control
The last such public health emergency was declared for the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people.