The World Health Organisation (WHO) is meeting in Geneva to discuss whether the Zika virus outbreak should be declared a global health emergency. Monday’s meeting comes after warnings by the UN health agency that the mosquito-borne virus, which is strongly suspected of causing birth defects, was “spreading explosively” in the Americas – WHO is expecting up to four million cases in the region this year.
Senior WHO officials, joined by representatives of affected countries and experts from around the globe, will meet behind closed doors to determine if Zika should be considered a “public health emergency of international concern”. WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said the meeting “will look really into what we know and will also see what level of health emergency this represents”.
A decision is not to be made public until Tuesday at the earliest. WHO is under pressure to act quickly in the fight against Zika, after admitting it was slow to respond to the recent Ebola outbreak that ravaged parts of West Africa and killed more than 11,000 people.
Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted infection related to dengue, yellow fever and West Nile virus. Symptoms are mild and include fever, rashes and joint pain. Yet, the disease is “strongly suspected’ to be linked to microcephaly, a birth defect characterised by incomplete brain development and an unusually small head. Brazil is the hardest hit country and sounded the alarm in October, when a rash of microcephaly cases emerged in the northeast.