The World Health Organization has labeled the mosquito-borne Zika virus a global public health emergency, the same label given to the Ebola virus in 2014.
According to BBC News, experts are worried that the virus may be spreading far and fast due to its formation in Aedes mosquitos. The uncertainty and fear surrounding the disease has drawn comparisons to the deadly Ebola virus that struck multiple countries in West Africa, although the health effects are drastically different. While Ebola could be fatal, Zika’s effects are relatively mild, with little-to-no hospitalization required.
Yet reports of microcephaly in Brazil, the country that has so far faced the largest occurrence of Zika infections, are cause for concern. Microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with underdeveloped brains, has been reported in over 4,000 children. However, scientists have yet to pinpoint a definitive link between Zika and the birth defect.
Pregnant women and children can protect themselves from the virus, WHO director general Margaret Chan explained during a press conference.
“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014 constitutes a public health emergency of international concern,” Chan said. “After a review of the evidence, the committee advised that the clusters of microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and public health threat to other parts of the world.”
“It is important to understand, there are several measures pregnant women can take,” Chan said. “If you can delay travel and it does not affect your other family commitments, it is something they can consider.
“If they need to travel, they can get advice from their physician and take personal protective measures, like wearing long sleeves and shirts and pants and use mosquito repellent.”
Experts are working quickly after facing criticism for their slow response to the Ebola outbreak.
Cases of Zika have also appeared in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa.
Although the Rio de Janeiro Olympics are just months away, the International Olympic Committee has decided not to cancel the games. Brazilian officials are giving out mosquito nets and advise women not to get pregnant until the threat is contained.
This solution has been met with criticism due to the country’s lack of birth control and relatively strict barriers against abortion.