It’s official: Zika is a global public health emergency, says the World Health Organization.
The declaration means that the organisation can now officially take the lead in coordinating the global response to a virus it thinks could infect up to 4 million people in the Americas over the next year.
A coordinated international response is needed to intensify the control of mosquito populations and expedite the development of vaccines, she said. The lack of vaccine and rapid reliable diagnostic tests was also cause for concern, she added.
Zika, which was first detected on the continent in May, has now spread “explosively” to more than 23 countries in the region. Alarm over its link to birth defects such as microcephaly prompted the WHO to consider a global response.
The WHO last declared a global emergency on August 2014, during the Ebola pandemic, but was subsequently criticised for failing to acknowledge the gravity of the situation sooner.
The emergency designation will allow the WHO to access funds to escalate research efforts and organise international efforts to combat the Aedes mosquitos that spread the disease.
Chan said that more work was needed to find if there is a definitive link between the virus and the symptoms and that studies will begin in the next two weeks. She stressed that it was important to introduce protective measures of the sort that help people also avoid diseases such as dengue.
“Can you imagine if we don’t do all this work now and wait till the science is settled, people will say why didn’t we act,” she said.
Although the committee said there were to be no restrictions on trade or travel, it is likely that many will be concerned about the impact on this year’s Rio Olympics.
The event could see Zika spread further around the world as visitors who acquire the infection return to countries where Aedes mosquitoes are present, seeding another outbreak.
Mario Andrada, the communications director of Rio 2016 , told Associated Press that organisers have been scouring Olympics venues every day for two weeks, looking for standing water where mosquitoes breed. The inspections would continue daily until the games open on 5 August, he said.
One small blessing is that this will be in Brazil’s winter when it’s cooler, drier and the mosquito population is smaller.