‘Alarming’ spread of Zika virus spurs global emergency response

The World Health Organization on Thursday announced it would establish an emergency committee of external experts to advise it on the extraordinary Zika virus outbreak “spreading explosively” through the Americas.

Saying the outbreak had reached “alarming proportions,” the agency’s director general, Dr. Margaret Chan, announced the decision during a special session at the WHO’s annual executive board meeting.

“The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty. Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly,” Chan said.

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Global health experts have been calling on Chan to convene an emergency committee on the Zika virus situation, which is suspected of being responsible for a surge in babies born with abnormally small brains — a condition called microcephaly — reported by Brazil. The country’s health ministry estimates there has been 4,180 cases of microcephaly there since last October.

As well, there are reports of elevated numbers of cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a generally temporary paralysis that sometimes follows infections.

Lawrence Gostin of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., is among the experts who has been calling for the WHO to raise the response to the Zika outbreak by naming an emergency committee. He praised the move Thursday, calling it a critical first step.

Alex Hogan/STAT Zika virus, which can be transmitted by mosquitos, has exploded onto the world stage.

“If the association between microcephaly and Zika virus is confirmed, there will be an ethical imperative to protect women of childbearing age from contracting the infection. The public will demand well-funded, proactive leadership from the World Health Organization,” Gostin said in a statement.

Gostin said the WHO must now mobilize international resources to curb the virus’s rapid spread. He said efforts need to focus on aggressive mosquito control, active surveillance, accelerated vaccine research, and travel advisories for pregnant women. “It is far better to be over-prepared than to wait until a Zika epidemic spins out of control.”

The expert group, which will meet for the first time on Monday, will be asked for advice on the appropriate level of international concern, Chan said. The committee will also be asked to recommend measures that affected countries should take, and to draw up a list of research priorities. Chan did not say who would be named to the committee.

The power to set up an emergency committee comes from the International Health Regulations, a treaty that binds WHO member states. Emergency committees have the power to advise the WHO director general to declare that a health threat is a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC, if it deems the situation severe enough to merit it.

Chan said the WHO is deeply concerned about the Zika virus situation, listing four reasons: its suspected link to birth defects and to neurological symptoms in some people infected; the possibility for additional geographic spread; the general lack of immunity to the virus; and the fact that drugs, vaccines, and rapid diagnostic tests don’t exist. She also said this year’s El Niño weather pattern is expected to increase mosquito populations.

“The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika. … The increased incidence of microcephaly is particularly alarming, as it places a heartbreaking burden on families and communities,” the director general said.

This is the fifth time Chan has turned to the emergency committee mechanism. Earlier emergency committees were convened to advise on the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, flagging polio eradication efforts, the Middle East respiratory syndrome or MERS, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

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