A panel of experts from the World Health Organization has declared the outbreak of the Zika virus to be a “public health emergency of international concern”. The rare move, which was announced by WHO director Margaret Chan, will trigger increased money and efforts into curbing the outbreak of the virus and research into possible vaccines or medication as well as whether the virus is indeed responsible for the large number of cases of microcephaly in Brazil.
Chan said the link between infection during pregnancy and microcephaly in babies is “strongly suspected” but so far not scientifically proven. The chair of the emergency committee, Prof David Heymann, stressed that the Zika virus itself “is not a clinically serious infection” and causes only a mild illness. “Zika alone would never be a public health emergency of international concern,” he said, but the cases of microcephaly in babies would be, which made it a very difficult decision. The previous time the WHO declared a global health emergency was in December 2013, during the Ebola outbreak, which caused more than 11,000 deaths in West Africa. At that time, Chan and the WHO were criticized for being too slow in declaring it a public health emergency, but experts have applauded the organization for being more proactive this time. WHO officials have estimated that up to four million people could be infected with the disease this year.