The World Health Organization announced today that it’s likely that the Zika virus is associated with the birth defect microcephaly, but the organization will need up to six months to prove it.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO’s executive director of outbreaks and health emergencies, said at a news conference today that the WHO will continue to treat the association as casual until further evidence presents itself.
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Unfortunately, that evidence will come once a number of women in Columbia and The America’s give birth this summer, hopefully to children without microcephaly, which is characterized by a small head and incomplete brain development on some occasions.
“A lot can be done in terms of reducing the intensity of Zika transmission and the accumulating evidence is that this has got to be done and done very, very urgently, because there is a very real possibility that this virus could be responsible for some of the horrific consequences we’ve been talking about in terms of children affected by this disease,” said Aylward at the news event in Geneva today.
Brazilian doctors were the first to link the Zika virus and microcephaly following a spike in babies born with microcephaly in the fall of 2015. Those birthhs followed the country’s most recent outbreak of the Zika virus. While Brazil and other countries have been forced to deal with the Zika virus for decades, it’s been quite some time since the last outbreak and it’s never been on this scale.
While the World Health Organization repeated that it has no proof that there exists a connection between the two, the WHO has had no difficulties saying that observed microcephaly clusters at the time of a Zika outbreak represent “an extraordinary event and public health threat to other parts of the world.”
While the WHO will bide its time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Brazilian biomedical research centers in the northeastern states of Paraiba and Bahia should see its studies concluded sometime in “this spring” according to CDC principal deputy director Anne Schuchat.
“Scientists are increasingly confident that Zika is causing microcephaly, but people may have different judgments about how much proof is enough,” Schuchat told an assembled group of reporters during a two-day meeting in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia recently.
The studies being undertaken by the U.S and Brazil are looking at looking microcephaly cases compared to the mothers possible symptoms of Zika if not diagnosed by a doctor. Many of these women don’t have adequate access to pre-natal care or simply medical attention given their often remote communities. The CDC is not solely looking at Zika, but the potential for other infections or environmental causes of the birth defects.
As someone who has had malaria (still have technically) and Dengue fever, Zika is a bit of a punk. However, if it’s causing widespread birth defects, that’s a whole different animal. Zika, generally speaking, simply causes a mild illness for about a week.
Zika is caused by an especially pernicious mosquito, Aedes aegypti. The UN stepped up this labeling by calling it an “opportunistic and tenacious menace” recently.
Dr. Pedro Alonso, director of WHO’s global malaria program hopes that new techniques in fighting mosquitoes, like fogging and the use of fish, might soon be brought to bare on the Aedes aegypti.
Presently, 36 countries have been forced to deal with Zika over the last year with 28 of them in the Americas.
“It is not that we’re waiting for a magic bullet of one of these new, fancy, potentially important new technologies, but a lot can be done in terms of controlling this outbreak and massively reducing the disease burden with currently available tools and strategies,” Alonso said.