Zika Virus – WHO Public Health Emergency of International Concern

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February 22nd, 2016

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By CHHS Research Assistant Lauren Morowit

On February 1, 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus and its suspected link to birth defects an international public health emergency.  In particular, the Americas are being plagued by a virus that researchers and the general public have little knowledge of with respect to both long-term and short-term side effects.  After the WHO was previously scrutinized for the delayed response to the Ebola crisis, the WHO decided to be more proactive about the Zika virus outbreaks by declaring a public health emergency.  But what does that mean, exactly, and what is the process for declaring something an emergency?

What constitutes an emergency: The term public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) is defined as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response.”

The decision to declare: The WHO’s Emergency Committee (EC) is comprised of international experts for the purpose of providing views on whether an event constitutes a public health emergency of international concern; moreover, the EC also proposes temporary recommendations to prevent or reduce the international spread of disease.  Among the Committee’s many considerations are any and all implications regarding international trade and travel.

The EC was convened on February 1, 2016 to discuss the cluster of microcephaly and other neurologic disorders reported in Brazil.  While the causal link between the Zika virus and microcephaly has yet to be definitively confirmed, the EC agreed that it is strongly suspected.  The mere fact that the population most vulnerable to the perils of this virus includes both pregnant women and their fetuses raised enough concern to for the EC to declare a PHEIC and initiate a series of international coordination efforts.

What an emergency declaration does: WHO’s declaration is intended to effectively prevent the spread of disease on a global scale by compelling countries and research institutions to follow and share data – a global prevention and control strategy based on surveillance, response activities, and research.  The WHO’s PHEIC declaration will trigger funding for research to establish whether the Zika virus is responsible for the large number of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil.  Furthermore, it will encourage the development and funding for a vaccine against the virus and reliable diagnostic tests.

The WHO’s Situational Report Summary states that a total of 33 countries have reported cases of Zika virus.  In addition to the spread of microcephaly clusters, the other primary causes for concern include the public’s lack of immunity to the virus and the lack of vaccines that exist.  Biosurveillance methods for Zika are currently lacking, and an effective vaccine is not expected to be developed for another 3-5 years. By declaring a PHEIC, the WHO increases global awareness and may help speed prevention and detection efforts.

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