WHO calls emergency meeting over Zika virus

WHO calls emergency meeting over Zika virus
Highlights

The World Health Organisation said on Thursday it expects three to four million cases of the Zika virus in the Americas, as fears mount over the rapid spread of the disease blamed for birth defects.

Geneva: The World Health Organisation said on Thursday it expects three to four million cases of the Zika virus in the Americas, as fears mount over the rapid spread of the disease blamed for birth defects.

“We can expect three to four million cases of the Zika virus disease,” said Marcos Espinal, the head of communicable diseases and health analysis at the WHO’s regional office in the Americas. The Zika virus is “spreading explosively” in the Americas, the head of the WHO said , as the global health body warned that it expected up to four million cases of the disease.

WHO chief Margaret Chan called for an emergency meeting on February 1 on the outbreak of the virus, which has been blamed for the birth defect microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with an abnormally small head.

“The level of alarm is extremely high,” Chan said, adding that the meeting of WHO’s Emergency Committee will seek to determine if the outbreak qualifies as an international public health emergency.

The virus “is now spreading explosively,” in the Americas, where 23 countries and territories have reported cases, the WHO chief said.

Marcos Espinal, the head of communicable diseases and health analysis at the WHO's Americas office, said the region should expect “three to four million cases” of Zika, without proving a timeframe for the outbreak to ramp up to that level.

Following its initial discovery in a monkey in Uganda's Zika forest in 1947, the disease “slumbered” and “occasionally caused a mild disease of low concern,” in humans, Chan said.

“The situation today is dramatically different.”

Chan highlighted the growing concern over Zika's possible link to microcephaly and a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

“A causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth malformations and neurological syndromes has not yet been established, but is strongly suspected,” Chan said.

The emergency meeting will seek advice on the severity of the outbreak and what response measures might be taken.

It will also aim to identify priority areas for urgent research, Chan said, after US President Barack Obama called for swift action, including better diagnostic tests as well as the development of vaccines and treatments.

Espinal warned that Zika “will go everywhere the mosquito is.”

“We should assume that. We should not wait for it to spread,” he said.

Drawing a contrast with Ebola, Espinal stressed that Zika needs a carrier to spread and that controlling the mosquito was therefore crucial to controlling the outbreak.

WHO has previously said that it expects Zika to spread to every country in the Americas except Canada and Chile.

Brazil has been the country hardest hit so far, and concerns are growing about this summer's Olympics, which is likely to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to host city Rio de Janeiro in August.

Zika originated in Africa and also exists in Asia and the Pacific, but has not been associated with microcephaly there. It first came to prominence in Brazil in October.

So, what’s Zika?
Zika means “overgrown” in Luganda language. The name comes from a forest in Uganda where the first infected rhesus monkeys were found. The virus was first identified in a monkey in Africa in 1947. Within several years the virus had jumped to humans in Uganda and Tanzania.

How is it transmitted
Like dengue, chikungunya, two similar diseases, Zika is transmitted by mosquito found in tropical and sub-tropical regions: Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, or tiger mosquitoes.

Cause of worry
Disease suspected of causing 2 serious complications: neurological problems and birth defects in babies born to infected women.

Nerve-testing
The main neurological complication is Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the immune system attacks nervous system, causing weakness and sometimes paralysis. Most patients recover, but the syndrome is sometimes deadly. Microcephaly and other brain deformities in newborns were reported, particularly in Brazil.

The treatment
There is no vaccine for Zika, and no specific treatment — patients simply pain-killers and other pills to fight symptoms.

Prevention is better
Water bodies were fumigated to stop mosquitoes breeding.

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