WHO says Zika virus ‘spreading explosively,’ calls emergency meeting

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The World Health Organization (WHO) will convene an emergency meeting next week to discuss its response to the Zika virus, warning that the mosquito-transmitted virus is now “spreading explosively” in the Americas.

WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said at a briefing in Geneva on Thursday that she is “deeply concerned” about the potential for further international spread of Zika and the possible association with birth malformations and neurological syndromes.

“The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty. Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly,” Dr. Chan said. “I have decided to convene an Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations. The Committee will meet in Geneva on Monday, 1 February.”

Dr. Chan remarked that the situation had changed rapidly in a relatively short time. “Last year, the virus was detected in the Americas, where it is now spreading explosively. As of today, cases have been reported in 23 countries and territories in the region,” she said. “The level of alarm is extremely high.”

Dr. Chan noted that outbreaks of the virus have in some places been associated with a steep increase in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads and in cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome. “A causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth malformations and neurological syndromes has not yet been established, but is strongly suspected,” she said.

The World Health Organization says the Zika virus was first isolated in 1947 from a monkey in the Zika forest of Uganda, and the mosquito-transmitted virus continued to affect mainly monkeys for nearly 5 more decades. When it did affect humans, it only caused a mild illness that raised no real concern.

That assessment began to change several years ago when Zika expanded beyond a narrow equatorial belt that stretches across Africa and into equatorial Asia. The Federated States of Micronesia recorded the first human outbreak of the virus in 2007, which was followed by large outbreaks in 4 additional Pacific island countries in 2013 and 2014.

Health experts have pointed out that the Zika virus became associated with neurological complications during an outbreak in French Polynesia, which happened at a time when the dengue virus was also affecting the island nation. “That was a unique feature, but difficult to interpret,” Dr. Chan said on Thursday.

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