The World Health Organization yesterday (1 February) declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus an international public health emergency due to its link to thousands of birth defects in Brazil.
The European Commission said the risk for the transmission of the virus in Europe was extremely low in winter.
This marks the fourth time the WHO has declared a global health emergency since such procedures were put in place in 2007, with the others arising from influenza, Ebola and polio.
Last November, the Brazilian health ministry confirmed that there was a link between cases of microcephaly, a head deformity, in babies and the Zika virus, transmitted by mosquitoes that spread dengue.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told reporters that coordinated international action was needed to improve detection and expedite work on a vaccine and better diagnostics for the disease, but said curbs on travel or trade were not necessary.
Chan, whose agency was assailed as too slow in reacting to West Africa’s Ebola epidemic that killed more than 10,000 people in the past two years, cited “first and foremost the big concern about microcephaly,” the birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and improperly developed brains.
She noted that it was “strongly suspected but not yet scientifically proven” that Zika causes microcephaly.
“Can you imagine if we do not do all this work now, and wait until the scientific evidence comes out?” Chan told reporters at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. “Then people will say that, ‘Why don’t you take action because the mosquito is ubiquitous?'”
The emergency designation, recommended by a committee of independent experts following criticism of a hesitant response to Zika so far, should help fast-track international action and research priorities. The move lends official urgency to research funding and other steps to stem the spread of the virus.
Four million people in the Americas could be infected
The WHO said last week the Zika virus, transmitted by the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, was “spreading explosively” and could infect as many as 4 million people in the Americas. The Pan American Health Organization says Zika has spread in 24 nations and territories in the Americas.
EurActiv asked the Commission to comment on the health risks for the Europeans. A spokesperson said the EU executive had asked the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to do a risk assessment, which was published on 22 January.
According to ECDC, the “risk of transmission of the Zika virus infection is extremely low in the EU” during the winter season as the climate conditions are not suitable to the mosquito which carries the virus.
EU travellers to the affected areas are advised to protect themselves against mosquito bites, in particular pregnant women, including mosquito repellents, nets, long clothes etc.
In particular, ECDC has included the following options to be considered when issuing information to travellers and EU residents in affected areas:
- Travellers to affected areas are advised to take individual protective measures to prevent mosquito bites.
- Travellers that have immune disorders or severe chronic illnesses are advised to consult their doctor or seek advice from a travel clinic before travelling.
- Pregnant women and women who are trying to become pregnant, and who plan to travel to the areas experiencing transmission of Zika virus, are advised to discuss their travel plans with their healthcare providers and to consider postponing their travel to affected areas, especially to areas with increasing or widespread transmission.
- EU citizens who live in areas with Zika virus transmission are advised to take individual protective measures to prevent mosquito bites. This applies particularly for pregnant women and women who are trying to become pregnant living in areas with increasing or widespread transmission.
- Individual protective measures to prevent mosquito bites should be applied all day long, especially during mid-morning and late afternoon to dusk, which are the periods of highest mosquito activity.
- Personal protection measures to avoid mosquito bites should include:
– Using mosquito repellents in accordance with the instructions indicated on the product label. DEET*-based repellent use is not recommended in children under three months of age.
– Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants, especially during the hours of highest mosquito activity.
– Using mosquito nets, whether they are impregnated or not, is essential if accommodation is not adequately screened or air-conditioned.
- Travellers showing symptoms compatible with dengue, chikungunya or Zika virus disease within three weeks after returning from an affected area should contact their healthcare provider.
- Pregnant women who have travelled to areas with Zika virus transmission should mention their travel during antenatal visits in order to be assessed and monitored appropriately.