There’s no time for a wait-and-see approach.
That’s the message that Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, delivered to journalists on Monday.
In a rare declaration that represents the WHO's highest level of alert and is invoked only in response to the most dire threats, Chan said the mosquito-borne virus has spread to 25 countries, including the United States. Pregnant women are especially at risk, said Chan.
This is only the fourth time such a declaration has been made.
Following the press conference, The Washington Post reported:
Zika, which was first identified more than 50 years ago, has alarmed public health officials in recent months as it was potentially linked to thousands of cases of brain defects, known as microcephaly, in newborns. Estimates are that the virus will infect up to 4 million people by year's end.
The emergency status paves the way for the mobilization of new funding and manpower from governments and nonprofits around the world, Chan said. At this time, there is no vaccine or way to prevent the spread of Zika.
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A coordinated international response is needed to improve detection and to speed work on a vaccine and better diagnostics, said Chan. She stopped short of discussing the need to curb travel or trade at this time, Reuters reported. Also, health experts noted that the virus is rampant in Brazil, where the Olympic Games are scheduled to be held this summer.
Position, praise and Periscope
Numerous physicians and health experts commended the proactive approach by WHO and the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both agencies were lambasted in 2014 for dragging their feet on the Ebola epidemic, which killed some 10,000 people worldwide.
The New York Times reminded readers of the slow response to Ebola:
The official “emergency” designation can trigger action and funding from governments and non-profits around the world. It elevates the WHO to the position of global coordinator, and gives its decisions the force of international law. The agency is trying to cast itself as a global leader to revive its reputation after a faltering response during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
Chan told reporters: “Can you imagine if we do not do all this work now and wait until all these scientific evidence to come out? People will say, ‘Why didn’t you take action?’”
Ashley Thomas Martino, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at St. John’s University in New York, agreed with the decisive action. "They always want to err on the side of caution. It frees up resources so they can give the appropriate response to limit the transmission and reduce the mosquito population. You're talking about people's health and fetal development," said Martino, who also teaches about infectious diseases.
WHO wanted to share the news on social media channels, and it used Periscope in its strategy.
Thomas Russo, professor and chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, said many were curious about how the World Health Organization would handle the Zika outbreak. "They're trying to get ahead of it," he said.