The World Health Organization ratcheted up its Zika-related warning for pregnant women Tuesday, saying authorities should advise them not to travel to areas with active transmission of the virus.
The WHO had previously suggested women should avoid traveling to places where Zika is spreading if they could. The new and firmer advice reflects the growing belief among global health experts that Zika virus infection during pregnancy can lead to severe birth defects, including but not limited to microcephaly — small heads — and malformed brains.
The WHO’s Director General Dr. Margaret Chan said Tuesday that “substantial new clinical and epidemiological research has strengthened the association between Zika infection and the occurrence of fetal malformations and neurological disorders.”
She made the comments during a briefing after the second meeting of a panel of experts who advise the WHO on the Zika outbreak. The so-called Emergency Committee, which first met on Feb. 1, counseled Chan to declare the conditions associated with Zika infection — birth defects in infants, an apparent increase in Guillain-Barre syndrome in others who have been infected with the virus — a public health emergency of international concern.
Chan said there are currently 31 countries and territories reporting active transmission of Zika virus.
Cases of microcephaly in babies born to women infected during pregnancy have been reported by French Polynesia, Brazil, and, just last week, Colombia. In the United States, a woman in Hawaii gave birth to a baby with microcephaly in January; she lived in Brazil during the early part of her pregnancy.