Citing Threat to Newborns, WHO Declares Spread of Zika an International Emergency

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Citing Threat to Newborns, WHO Declares Spread of Zika an International Emergency

Experts say that rapid deforestation and rising temperatures are behind rise in deadly pathogens

El Salvador has urged women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreaks of microcephaly in Latin America and their possible link to the Zika virus a global health emergency—invoking a rarely used dictum due to the high risk to pregnant women and newborns.

Speaking after an emergency session in Geneva on Monday, WHO director general Margaret Chan announced that a committee of 18 experts agreed that connection between the Zika virus and congenital abnormalities such as microcephaly constitutes an "extraordinary event," adding that a casual relationship between the two is "strongly suspected though not scientifically proven."

David Heymann, chair of the Emergency Committee, specified that Zika alone is not a Public Health Emergency of International Concern because it is not a clinically serious condition. However, the group has called for a coordinated international effort to study the relationship between Zika and the recent spike in neurological complications in newborns, including standardized surveillance of cases and "intensified" research into new clusters.

The Committee also demanded a coordinated global response to minimize the threat in affected countries and reduce further international spread.

The announcement followed comments made by Brazil's health minister that the epidemic in his country is far worse than original estimates because "80 percent of the cases the infected people have no symptoms," Reuters reports. Marcelo Castro asserted that the mosquito-borne virus is the cause of 3,700 confirmed and suspected cases of newborns with neurological defects in his country.

On Monday, Chan stopped short of issuing blanket restrictions on trade or travel, but noted that high-risk individuals, such as pregnant women, may want to delay traveling to Zika-affected areas and should take extra precautions to prevent mosquito bites.

Authorities in a number of Latin American and Caribbean countries have advised women to avoid getting pregnant altogether—a statement which observers note ignores the fact that information regarding and access to contraceptives usually does not reach women in poor or rural areas. 

Meanwhile, a growing chorus of experts in recent days have connected the pandemic currently sweeping Latin America to the rapid deforestation and rising temperatures in those locales.

The Independent reports:

Professor Amy Vittor, an expert in insect-borne diseases at the Emerging Pathogens Institute of the University of Florida, said the emergence and spread of the virus was “absolutely” likely to be connected with environmental degradation “in its broadest sense”. She said that such diseases persisted in a “closed cycle of animals and mosquitoes” until they spread to people through such incursions as cutting down trees, adding that her research has shown that “deforestation followed by agriculture and regrowth of low-lying vegetation provided a much more suitable environment” for the insects than undisturbed, pristine forest. 

And Dr Allison Gottwalt of the George Washington University’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics describes felling forests as creating “ideal conditions for vectors to breed and spread infectious diseases”.

At the same time, warmer temperatures are likely to expand the territory of Zika-infected mosquito populations.

Dr. Aysha Akhtar, a neurologist and public health specialist, said Sunday that the combined factors of human overpopulation, increased travel, climate change, habitat loss, and the growing trade and factor farming of animals are driving an uptick in deadly pathogens.

"Each time a new pathogen causes an outbreak, we follow a familiar pattern: we panic, ask ourselves how can this be, scramble to create new drugs, sigh with relief when the outbreak ends, and then continue the same behaviors that caused the pathogen to emerge in the first place," Akhtar wrote at Huffington Post. "We need to stop being reactive. Medicines and vaccines only provide a temporary fix, at best."

"Unless we take a hard look at the choices we make in life," she continues, "new pathogens will show themselves at an ever-increasing rate."

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