GENEVA (AP) — The World Health Organization declared an international emergency on Monday over the explosive spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is linked to birth defects in the Americas, saying it is an “extraordinary event.”
The U.N. health agency convened an emergency meeting of independent experts in Geneva to assess the outbreak after noting a suspicious link between Zika’s arrival in Brazil last year and a surge in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads.
“After a review of the evidence, the committee advised that the clusters of microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and public health threat to other parts of the world,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said.
Brazil, which has been hit the hardest by this virus, has seen 4,000 cases of babies born with birth defects due to Zika Virus since May.
WHO estimates there could be up to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year, but no recommendations were made to restrict travel or trade.
World health leaders estimate the reason it’s spreading so quickly in that part of the world is because people there don’t have immunity to it yet.
There are no cases of the virus in Erie County, but case numbers are growing in New York state. There are now 5 confirmed cases in New York City, at least 8 state-wide, including one in Monroe County.
None of the cases in New York were locally transmitted; all patients became infected while traveling abroad.
“It is important to understand, there are several measures pregnant women can take,” Chan said. “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.”
The last such public health emergency was declared for the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people. A similar declaration was made for polio the year before.
“I think the federal government should have learned a lesson with Ebola. They started late. Once they started they did a good job and there wasn’t Ebola here, but a lot of people got scared and there was a lot of economic harm as well. So I wanted the federal government to start very early on Zika,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer Monday.
Such emergency declarations are meant as an international SOS signal and usually trigger increased money and efforts to stop the outbreak, as well as prompting research into possible treatments and vaccines.