World Health Organization Declares Zika Virus A Global Health Emergency

After holding an emergency meeting Monday, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has declared the current Zika virus an official global health emergency, the New York Times reported. This rare move is a sign of the seriousness of the outbreak, which has been linked to serious birth defects and has moved to more than 20 Latin American countries after its detection in Brazil last May.

“The main worry is over the virus’s possible link to microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with brain damage and unusually small heads.”

The official declaration that the Zika virus poses an international public health emergency will reportedly make new tools available to fight its spread in affected countries. Since the virus emerged last year, cases of affected babies have risen sharply in Brazil and it is exhibiting a growing presence in other affected countries.

Transmitted by mosquitos, the Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda during 1947 and for decades was present only in monkeys; but last year cases in Brazil began increasing dramatically and the W.H.O. estimates that at least 4 million people could be infected by the end of 2016. Monday’s official “emergency” designation will cause governments and non-profits from around the world to step in and take action, which includes funding to help combat the disease.

Despite its decision to upgrade the current Zika virus scare to a global health emergency, W.H.O. Director General Margaret Chan told USA Today that experts are currently unable to directly link the virus to the rise in birth defects among affected countries.

“Experts agree that Zika virus is strongly suspected though not yet scientifically proven to be be the cause of these problems, and as a precautionary measure, a coordinated internal response is needed.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been no locally-transmitted cases of the Zika virus in the United States so far, but the illness has shown up within U.S. borders among travelers coming in from other countries that are known to be affected. So far, this has included a student from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, who contracted the disease while traveling in Central America this winter and is expected to make a full recovery.

Perhaps the most shocking side effect of the Zika virus occurs among affected pregnant women, as it is proven to cause birth defects and serious deformities in newborns. As the virus flourishes across Brazil, the cases of microcephaly already number in the hundreds – a figure that is expected to rise, according to the Independent. This tragic condition leaves newborns with abnormally small heads and very likely to suffer from severe brain damage, facing an uncertain future. As for prevention, it turns out that mosquito netting doesn’t do much to prevent bites and a vaccine might be more than a decade away, so a variety of old-fashioned methods may prove to be most effective in the fight to stop the spread of the Zika virus.

“Households in at-risk zones should be advised to remove all standing water, and provided with DDT.”

Although DDT is a serious and very powerful pesticide, it was proven effective during the mosquito purges in Latin America between the 1930s and early 1960s, which aimed at eliminating malaria and dengue-carrying mosquitos. Today, officials are busy going door-to-door educating at-risk communities about proper use of DDT, which is virtually harmless when used on walls inside homes.

World Health Organization Declares Zika Virus A Global Health Emergency
A British company is also working to solve the problem by taking a different approach and preventing Zika-carrying mosquitos from being born in the first place. The company has engineered a genetically-modified mosquito that naturally sterilizes the offspring of those it makes with. The modified mosquitos have already been release in parts of Brazil, where they dramatically reduced the size of local populations.

[Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]