Declaring that Zika virus is ‘spreading explosively,’ WHO to hold meeting

China's Margaret Chan, General Director of the World Health Organization, WHO, speaks about the Information Session on Zika virus for WHO Member States, during a WHO Executive Board session, at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)


By Jamey Keaten And Maria Cheng ,AP

GENEVA, Switzerland — Declaring that the Zika virus is “spreading explosively,” chief of the World Health Organization announced that it will hold an emergency meeting of independent experts on Monday to decide if the virus outbreak should be declared an international health emergency.

At a special meeting Thursday in Geneva, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said the virus — which has been linked to birth defects and neurological problems — is becoming more of a threat.

Chan said although there was no definitive proof that the Zika virus was responsible for a spike in the number of babies being born with abnormally small heads in Brazil, “the level of alarm is extremely high.” She also noted a possible relationship between Zika infection and Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis.

“The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions. The increased incidence of microcephaly is particularly alarming, as it places a heart-breaking burden on families and communities,” Chan said.

The Zika virus was first detected in 1947 and for decades only caused mild disease, but Chan noted that “the situation today is dramatically different.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Zika virus is now in more than 20 countries, mostly in Central and South America. It is spread by the Aedes mosquito, which also spreads dengue and yellow fever.

WHO called the special session in part to convey its concern about an illness that has sown fear among many would-be mothers, who have responded by covering themselves head-to-toe in clothing in largely tropical Brazil or putting on many coats of insect repellent.

Chan cited four main reasons why WHO was “deeply concerned” about Zika: The possible link to birth defects and brain syndromes, the prospect of further spread, a lack of immunity among people living in the newly affected areas and the absence of vaccines, treatments or quick diagnostic tests for the virus.