The World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus a public health emergency due to the thousands of cases of the virus linked to birth defects in newborn children.
“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014 constitutes a public health emergency of international concern,” announced WHO director general Margaret Chan.
The National Health Institute confirmed 20,297 cases in Colombia. The latest numbers “make Colombia the second most affected country in the region, after Brazil.” The majority of those infected live in the Caribbean region. More than 60% of those are women.
“This is an extraordinary event,” she continued. “It poses a public health threat to other parts of the world and a coordinated international response is needed.”
Last week, the WHO warned the disease had “explosive pandemic potential.” Marcos Espinal, head of Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis for the WHO’s regional satellite, the Pan American Health Organization, predicted the world could see “3 to 4 million cases of Zika virus disease.”
WHO may declare a public health emergency following these regulations:
to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease; and
to potentially require a coordinated international response”. This definition implies a situation that: is serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action.
The process dictates the director general must meet with a committee of experts, who provides “measures to be promulgated on an emergency basis, known as temporary recommendations.”
Aedes aegypti mosquitos carry the disease. While primarily found in Africa, all but two nations on the Western Hemisphere boast significant populations. (Chile and Canada are the exceptions.) They also carry Dengue, yellow fever, and Chikungunya. Doctors found the disease in one infant during an autopsy, and numerous mothers reported symptoms.
Patients often experience mild symptoms with Zika, but pregnant women face a larger danger. Experts are working to understand what has now become a clear link between Zika and microcephaly, which occurs when the brain does not form properly and results in a small head. This leads to serious mental disabilities.
Following the outbreak of Zika, Brazil has discovered over 4,000 cases and is diagnosing an average of 200 cases a week. In 2015, the country tracked over 2,400 cases compared to the 147 in 2014. Colombia confirmed more than 2,100 pregnant women have Zika.
Colombian officials urged women to delay pregnancy due to the outbreak.
“It is recommended that women postpone — to the extent possible — the decision to become pregnant until the country can move out of the epidemic phase of the Zika virus,” pleaded the Health Ministry.
Brazil, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico have also advised women against getting pregnant.
“It’s a very personal decision, but at this moment of uncertainty, if families can put off their pregnancy plans, that’s what we’re recommending,” stated Angela Rocha, the pediatric infectologist at Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in Brazil.
The National Institutes of Health acknowledged that the Zika virus outbreak has reached pandemic levels in Latin America.
“You have multiple countries in South America and in the Caribbean, so by anybody’s definition that would be considered a pandemic,” explained Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the infectious diseases branch at the institute.