As Zika Virus Spreads, Doctors Try to Calm Fears
Jan. 28, 2016 -- Public health officials said Thursday they're concerned about the fast-spreading Zika virus, and they're racing to understand its relationship to the troubling rise in birth defects seen in Brazil and other countries.
“The level of alarm is extremely high,” said Margaret Chan, MD, director-general of the World Health Organization, as she briefed the executive board.
Chan said she was worried about the rapidly evolving situation for four reasons:
- The virus has been tied to severe birth defects, including babies born with brain damage to infected mothers.
- The mosquito that carries the virus, the yellow fever mosquito, is found in nearly every country in North and South America except Canada and Chile.
- People in these countries have never been exposed to the virus before, so there’s very little natural immunity to the virus in the general population.
- There is no vaccine that can prevent the infection, very few tests available to detect it, and no treatments for it.
Chan said the WHO will meet on Monday to decide whether to declare an international public health emergency in response to Zika, a move that would step up international efforts to fight it.
Bruce Aylward, MD, assistant director-general of the WHO, said he expects there will be 3 million to 4 million Zika infections in the Americas over the next 12 months.
In a separate press briefing held by the CDC, U.S. officials admitted there were more questions than answers about the virus right now.
“We know many people are concerned or scared,” said Anne Schuchat, MD, principal deputy director of the CDC.
Schuchat stressed that most people aren’t in any serious danger from Zika, which is carried by mosquitoes.
What has health officials most worried, she said, is that “increasing lines of evidence suggest that some women infected with Zika during their pregnancies may go on to deliver a baby with a serious brain injury.”
The CDC has issued a travel warning for women who are pregnant or want to become pregnant covering 24 nations and territories in Central and South America, and the Caribbean.