- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 28, 2016

The World Health Organization said Thursday it will convene an emergency session to fight the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that is “spreading explosively” in the Americas and has been tied to birth defects and other serious health problems, although the link is murky.

The situation is particularly urgent, the U.N. agency’s chief said, because there are no vaccines, treatments or rapid diagnostic tests for the little-known virus, which is hitting Brazil particularly hard before the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this August.

“The level of alarm is extremely high,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, who scheduled an emergency Monday session in Geneva, Switzerland, to address the surge in infections.

Zika virus typically causes mild symptoms, such as fever or rash. But now it has been linked to the birth of babies with abnormally small heads — a condition known as microcephaly — and Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves.

Much more research is needed to determine if Zika is causing either condition, even if the data are “very suggestive” of a link, said Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Health Security.

That’s because researchers must determine if additional factors — nutrition or prenatal issues, for instance, or other infections — are playing a role.

Underscoring the confusion, Brazil’s health ministry this week was able to confirm only 270 cases of microcephaly out of 4,180 suspected cases, according to multiple news reports. It ruled out 462 and is still studying the rest.

Zika isn’t being transmitted in the continental U.S., but it has been found in returning travelers and is spreading in Puerto Rico, prompting President Obama this week to convene a special meeting with his top health and national security officials.

“Our real concern is about this correlation between the Zika virus and a particular birth defect, and that’s what we’re mindful of, and that’s why we’re mobilizing the kind of response that we believe is consistent with the threat that’s out there,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at Thursday’s daily briefing.

Members of Congress also got into the act, urging the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health to step up the fight against the disease through research.

“With the World Health Organization’s recent announcement of the virus ‘spreading explosively’ and recently reported cases in the United States, it is imperative we take preventative measures to ensure the safety of all Americans,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who is running for an open Senate seat, said in a letter to both agencies.

The CDC says pregnant women should postpone travel to nations where Zika transmission is present. If they must travel, they should use insect repellent, wear long sleeves and pants and follow other tips to avoid mosquito bites, it said.

Several airlines are offering a refund or free rebooking to pregnant women who bought tickets to Zika-affected nations, although some require a doctor’s note.

The Zika virus was discovered in Uganda in 1947 and had been relatively dormant for decades, mainly affecting monkeys, before it hit the Pacific Islands in 2007, according to the WHO.

“The situation today is dramatically different,” Dr. Chan said. “Last year the virus was detected in the Americas, where it is now spreading explosively.”

Since Brazil reported a case in May 2015, infections have spread to 23 countries and territories in the region. Making matters worse, this year’s El Nino weather pattern is expected to allow mosquito populations to proliferate.

On Twitter Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said the world needs to declare “war” against the Aedes mosquito, which carries Zika virus.

The White House said the risk of mosquito-borne illness in the U.S. is relatively low at the moment given January’s cool temperatures.

“But obviously, that’s going to change,” Mr. Earnest added. “Eventually, the mercury is going to start to rise, and we need to be mindful of any sort of potential risk here in the United States.”

In the meantime, the virus is emerging as the next global health crisis after Ebola killed more than 11,000 in West Africa during a two-year epidemic that ended earlier this month, though flare-ups are still possible.

The WHO had been criticized for its slow response to that epidemic. And while the diseases are quite different, the Ebola outbreak “did concretize the fact that infectious disease emergencies can cause a lot of panic and societal disruption,” Dr. Adalja noted.

That said, there is a wealth of knowledge about the mosquitoes that spread Zika and other diseases, including yellow fever, dengue and the chikungunya virus.

“These mosquitoes have been a public health target for quite a while,” Dr. Adalja said, “and a lot of knowledge exists on how to diminish their population.”

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