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Researchers warn WHO of 'potential Zika pandemic'

January 28, 2016

Researchers are urging the World Health Organization to act swiftly to halt the spread of the Zika virus. Warning of "explosive" potential, they called on officials to avoid mistakes made during the last Ebola outbreak.

Zika Virus Brasilien Mütter mit Babys Hospital Oswaldo Cruz
Image: Reuters/U.Marcelino

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association ahead of a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting on Thursday, researchers urged authorities to avoid apparent mistakes it made in dealing with the recent Ebola crisis.

The Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes, has been blamed for a sharp rise in the number of infants born with abnormally small heads, known as microcephaly.

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

In particular, they urged Director-General Margaret Chan to call a special meeting of experts to where the declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) could be considered.

"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 WHO to act," the pair added. They warned that Zika had "explosive" pandemic potential with outbreaks in Africa, South East Asia and the Pacific islands as well as the Americas.

Infografik Die Ausbreitung des Zika-Virus Englisch

Director-General Chan was set to address the WHO's executive board about the Zika virus on Thursday, sharing the agency's information on the virus, and proposed steps to be taken in response.

Evidence so far 'circumstantial'

The flu-like symptoms caused by Zika are so mild it 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 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.

Evidence from the Brazilian Health Ministry on Wednesday suggested that - after intensive analysis - there might be fewer cases of microcephaly than had first been feared.

Rousseff makes regional appeal

However, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Wednesday called for Latin America to launch a region-wide battle against the Zika virus. Rousseff called a meeting of health ministers from around the region next Tuesday in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, to discuss the outbreak.

She also urged Brazilians to engage in a war against the mosquito Aedes aegypti, which also spreads dengue fever. "While we do not have a vaccine against the Zika virus, the war must be concentrated on the elimination of breeding grounds for the mosquito," Rousseff added. "Getting rid of Zika is the responsibility of us all."

rc/jil (AP, APF, dpa, Reuters)