WHO Zika committee: Strong but not conclusive links to GBS, microcephaly, other neurological damage, wider spread, “alarming,” prompted update to recommendations

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Of $56 million needed for international response, $3 million has come in, WHO says

The second meeting of the World Health Organization Emergency Committee examining the international health emergency posed by the Zika virus and clusters of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders in recently affected areas weighed new reports today and found increasing evidence that a causal relationship between the virus and neurological impacts call for both swift public health measures as well as accelerated and focused additional research.

The committee has now folllowed the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control in recommending that pregnant women be advised not to travel to areas where Zika is being transmitted, and should “ensure safe sexual practices” — presumably use condoms — or refrain from sex with male partners who travel or live in those areas. It also recommended vector control at airports and that individual countries consider disinfecting planes. Development of new insect control measures should be undertaken “with particular urgency,” the committee said.

While a press conference following the committee’s meeting today highlighted new reports that WHO Director General Margaret Chan said indicated wider avenues of transmission, in more areas, and through more cases of sexual transmission than previously thought, as well as studies confirming the overlay of Zika infection and neurological disorders, she, and committee chair David Heymann also emphasized that much remains unknown. That includes confirmation that Zika causes the disorders, as well as the impacts of two identified strains, from Africa and Asia. Research into the impact of Zika virus that has appeared in Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of West Africa is particularly urgent, Chan said.

First noticed in 1947, Zika made its way across Africa and Asia without being linked to neurological issues, Heymann noted.

Research on the history and genetics of the virus is critical now, the committee urged. At the same time, vector control, disease surveillance, public health communications, and clinical care will call for an influx of staffing and resources. But Chan noted, of the $56 million WHO has said is needed for current efforts, only $3 million is currently available.

“It is easy for us to say we will do our utmost,” she said, “but the financing of the work is also important.”

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