WHO Director-General Margaret Chan made a written statement on the outcome of the Emergency Committee where the severity of the health threat associated with the continuing spread of Zika virus disease in Latin America and the Caribbean was discussed by teleconference.
“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” Chan said.
According to the statement, experts agreed that “a causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven”.
They agreed on the urgent need to coordinate international efforts to investigate and understand this relationship better.
Zika an "extraordinary event"
Some of the addressed issues were the broad geographical distribution of Aedes mosquito species that can transmit the virus, as well as the lack of vaccines and rapid and reliable diagnostic tests. Also, the absence of population immunity in newly affected countries was a deep concern, according to the WHO statement.
“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” said Chan.
The committee also called on for “coordinated international response” in a bid to “minimize the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread”.
WHO chief announced that she has accepted the advice of members that the situation met the conditions for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern” Chan said.
Need for "coordinated international response"
WHO underlined the need for “coordinated international response” to improve surveillance, the detection of infections, congenital malformations, and neurological complications. Accordingly it is needed 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, said the committee meeting summary of Chan.
Various countries including Turkey has made travel advises and suggested pregnant women to cancel or delay their travels to countries of risk.
The Committee, on the other hand, “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” the organization’s emergency committee suggested.
Chan added that delaying travel was something pregnant women "can consider" while urging them to take personal protective measures by covering up as well as using mosquito repellants.