The spread of the Zika virus has been declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“In assessing the level of threat, the 18 experts and advisers looked in particular at the strong association, in time and place, between infection with the Zika virus, and a rise in detected cases of congenital malformations and neurological complications,” said Doctor Margaret Chan, the director general of the WHO, in a statement released after a high-level teleconference attended by experts.
The mosquito-borne virus has been linked to over 4,000 birth defects in Brazil since October where children have been born with microcephaly, a congenital condition where they have abnormally smaller heads and brains.
“After a review of the evidence, the Committee advised that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes an ‘extraordinary event,’ and a public health threat to other parts of the world,” said the statement.
Watch The World Health Organization declare the Zika virus to be a global health emergency in this Associated Press report:
The virus has spread to most of southern and central America. An estimated 1.5 million Brazilians have caught the virus, says Reuters.
Most people who contract the virus don’t show any symptoms, and for those who do it resembles dengue and chikungunya, which are diseases that are also transmitted by the same type of mosquito. It has been the birth defects and the spread of the disease in the western hemisphere that has raised alarm bells.
“The experts agreed that a causal relationship between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven,” said Chan.
The absence of vaccines and efficient diagnostic tests, plus the absence of population immunity in newly affected countries were named as additional causes for concern.
Chan said the experts advised that a coordinated international response is required to meet the threat that the tropical disease poses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, before 2015 there were areas in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands which had suffered outbreaks of the virus. The disease is believed to have reached Brazil via foreigners attending the World Cup soccer in 2014
Watch this Vox report that further explains the virus: