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WHO official expects '3-4 million' Zika cases

January 28, 2016

The World Health Organization has called an emergency meeting on whether to declare an international emergency over the Zika outbreak. The virus, which has spread rapidly across borders, may be linked to birth defects.

Brasilien Recife Baby mit Mikrozephalie
Image: Getty Images/M. Tama

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan told a member state representatives meeting in Geneva on Thursday that an emergency committee would meet to decide if the virus outbreak should be declared an international emergency. The panel was to convene on Monday.

Chan said the virus - linked with a surge in the number of babies being born with abnormally small heads in Brazil - was spreading explosively.

While there is still no definitive proof of a link between Zika and the condition, microcephaly, Chan said, "the level of alarm is extremely high."

The WHO last declared an international emergency over the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people.

"We can expect 3-4 million cases of Zika virus disease," Marcos Espinal, an infectious disease expert at the WHO's Americas regional office said, neglecting to provide a timeframe for his figure.

Echoes of Ebola

Earlier, researchers had urged Chan to call such a meeting, warning of the potential for a pandemic.

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they urged authorities to avoid apparent mistakes made in dealing with the recent Ebola outbreak.

In their article, "The Emerging Zika Pandemic - Enhancing Preparedness," medical experts Daniel R. Lucey and Lawrence O. Goslin, called for the WHO to learn from past mistakes and show global leadership.

"The director-general was widely criticized for waiting four months after the first cross-border transmission of Ebola before declaring a PHEIC," said the authors. "A key lesson learned from that searing experience was the need for an intermediate-level response to emerging crises, thus avoiding overreaction while still galvanizing global action."

"The international community cannot afford to wait for the WHO to act," the pair added. They warned that Zika had "explosive" pandemic potential, with outbreaks in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands as well as the Americas.

The flulike symptoms caused by Zika are so mild that the virus can often go undetected. However, a sudden rise in the number of cases of microcephaly in Brazil has been linked with the spread of the virus. Traces of Zika genetic material have been identified in affected brain tissue, amniotic fluid and miscarried fetuses.

Several countries have warned pregnant women not to travel to the 22 nations in the Americas where the virus has so far been reported. The WHO and others have stressed that any link between Zika and the defect remains unproven and circumstantial. Microcephaly can also be caused by genetics, malnutrition or drugs.

rc/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)