Stopping the spread of the mosquito-borne virus, which has been linked to occurrences of birth defects in South America, is becoming a top priority for global health agencies. Associations are joining the effort.
A sudden, urgent priority for the World Health Organization (WHO) is the rise of the Zika virus and its rapid spread, which has been compared to dengue fever and the West Nile virus. The illness, carried by mosquitoes, generally causes mild symptoms, such as fevers and rashes. But health authorities are reporting a possible link between the Zika virus and a significant increase in birth defects and neurological ailments throughout Latin America, particularly in Brazil.
WHO Director General Margaret Chan, while emphasizing that no tie between the virus and birth defects has been confirmed, noted that even the suspicion of one was raising alarm bells in the medical world.
“The possible links have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions,” Chan said at an emergency meeting in Geneva Thursday, according to The Guardian. “The increased incidence of microcephaly is particularly alarming, as it places a heartbreaking burden on families and communities.”
Restrictions and Awareness
And that’s leading many to press for action in preventing the disease from spreading beyond the 23 South American and Caribbean countries in which it has been detected. For example, the United States and Canadian governments this week banned travelers who have visited regions where Zika has emerged from donating blood after their return.
In areas of the world where the disease has been diagnosed, there is an increased focus on awareness, and assistance is coming from the nonprofit sector. The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, for example—based on guidance from the Caribbean Public Health Agency and the Caribbean Tourism Organization—is working to ensure that hotel employees and guests are aware of the risks and is making insect repellent available to guests. Public health authorities are warning hotels against keeping water tanks uncovered and letting garbage build up, both of which attract mosquitoes.
Nonetheless, the spread of the disease could affect tourism. Turnaround Management Association CEO Gregory Fine warned at a conference hosted by M&A Advisor that concerns about the disease could cause a “phenomenal slowdown” in business travel.
A call for quick action
The WHO emergency meeting is occurring as researchers are pressing the organization to do something. In an op-ed piece for the Journal of the American Medical Association, Georgetown University professors Daniel R. Lucey and Lawrence O. Gostin recommended that WHO treat the rise of the Zika virus as a public health emergency of international concern. They argue that the failure to do so quickly during last year’s Ebola outbreak potentially worsened the epidemic.
“On January 18, WHO said it is ‘supporting countries to control Zika,’ citing the need for surveillance, laboratories, vector control, and clinical care. Yet, the global dimensions of Zika are quite clear, with fresh urgency as the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro loom,” Lucey and Gostin wrote.
WHO officials, who have admitted errors in their handling the Ebola outbreak, will meet on Monday to decide whether the disease should be treated as a public health emergency of international concern.