On Monday evening, an emergency meeting of independent experts was called by WHO in Geneva. At the crucial meet, it was decided that the explosive spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus was suspected to be linked to the surge in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads in Brazil.
“After a review of the evidence, the committee advised that the clusters of microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and public health threat to other parts of the world,” said Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO.
“The experts agree that a causal relationship between the Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven,” confirmed Chan.
The meet which was to assess the outbreak of Zika, estimated that there could be up to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year. However, there was no decision taken to restrict travel or trade to stop the spread of virus.
“It is important to understand, there are several measures pregnant women can take,” Chan said.
“If you can delay travel and it does not affect your other family commitments, it is something they can consider…If they need to travel, they can get advice from their physician and take personal protective measures, like wearing long sleeves and shirts and pants and use mosquito repellent,” Chan added.
Brazil has reported over 3,700 suspected cases of microcephaly, in which infants are born with smaller-than-usual brains. The Health Ministry has linked the condition to Zika virus carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, although the connection is not yet definitive.
Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Castro told Reuters on Monday the epidemic was worse than believed because in 80 percent of cases, the infected people had no symptoms.
Experts believe that as the virus spreads from Brazil, other countries in the Americas are also likely to see cases of babies with Zika-linked birth defects.
The last time WHO declared a public health emergency was in 2014, when the deadly Ebola broke out in West Africa that claimed more than 11,000 lives in 2 years. In 2013, WHO declared polio a global health emergency when there was a sudden surge in the number of polio cases that year.
Such emergency declarations are meant as an international SOS signal which could help fast-track international action and research priorities into possible treatments and vaccines to contain the disease.
(With inputs from agencies)