On Monday, the World Health Organization classified the Zika virus as an international public health emergency. Since the outbreak began in Brazil last May, it has spread to over 20 countries in Latin America, according to the New York Times.
The main reason for the classification is the virus’ suspected link with microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with small heads and brain damage. For that reason, pregnant women have been urged to avoid traveling to countries where the virus is present, and a number of Latin American countries have urged women to avoid becoming pregnant while the outbreak persists.
“Even the clusters of microcephaly alone are enough to declare a public health emergency because of its heavy burden [on families and the community,]” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan in the press conference.
The Washington Post reports:
According to the latest figures, there have been 4,000 suspected cases in Brazil and 270 have been confirmed as microcephaly with evidence of an infection. There were also several cases in French Polynesia in 2014, WHO officials said.
The declaration represents the WHO’s highest level of alert and is only invoked in response to the most dire threats. The first time was in 2009 during the H1N1 influenza epidemic that is believed to have infected up to 200 million worldwide; the second in May 2014 when a paralyzing form of polio re-emerged in Pakistan and Syria; and the third in August 2014 with Ebola in West Africa.
In an article for CNN, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden wrote that the organization thought it was well within the realm of possibility that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could develop Zika virus outbreaks—crowded places without air conditioning enable the virus to spread. Frieden called the possibility of the outbreak making its way into the contiguous United States “unlikely.” Several American tourists visiting South America have already contracted the virus.
Frieden also wrote that the CDC had developed a test that could confirm Zika in the first week of illness, and was working to improve testing, as well as mosquito control.
On Friday, President Barack Obama met with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff to discuss how the two countries might cooperate in combatting the spread of the virus.
“The leaders agreed on the importance of collaborative efforts to deepen our knowledge, advance research, and accelerate work to develop better vaccines and other technologies to control the virus,” the White House press office said in a statement, according to ABC News. “The leaders agreed to continue to prioritize building national, regional, and global capacity to combat infectious disease threats more broadly.”
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Image: Alice Vitoria Gomes Bezerra, 3-months-old, who has microcephaly, is held by her mother Nadja Cristina Gomes Bezerra sits on January 31, 2016 in Recife, Brazil. Via Getty.