The World Health Organisation has declared a public health emergency around the Zika virus and its apparent link to serious neurological problems in infants.
WHO Chief Margaret Chan told reporters that the link between Zika and Microcephaly, which causes birth defects, was “strongly suspected though not yet scientifically proven”.
The announcement came at the end of an emergency review of the virus by a team of 18 public health experts.
“After a review of the evidence, the committee advised that the clusters of Microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world,” Dr Chan said.
“In their view a coordinated international response is needed to minimise the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread.”
The WHO is concerned that while there has not yet been a definitive link established between Zika and Microcephaly, the surge in cases of both in Brazil late last year and the subsequent spread of the disease to a number of Latin American nations with no natural immunity to Zika, is a significant public health risk.
Dr Chan said an international response was necessary, but that it did not have to affect travel or trade.
The top priority was controlling the “ubiquitous” mosquito that carries Zika.
Since November 2015, there have been 4000 cases of severe brain damage and deformity in Brazil, in babies born to mothers with the little-known Zika virus.
While evidence suggests that it is Zika that has caused the spike, the link has not been comprehensively established.
But Dr Chan said there’s enough evidence to suggest that the two are tied and that acting now is better than waiting for final confirmation.
“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of Microcephaly and other neurological complications reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes as public health emergency of international concern,” she said.
The hope is that the WHO declaration will enable a coordinated and well-resourced international response to the disease.
In the meantime, Dr Chan advised pregnant women, wanting to travel to affected areas, to seek medical advice first.
“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.”
Zika has currently spread to over 20 countries in Latin America, including Brazil.
There have been some reported cases of Zika in Australia, although health authorities say those cases were contracted overseas.