WHO steps up response to microcephaly surge in Zika-hit areas

2016-02-02 20:02
An Aedes Aegypti mosquito is photographed on human skin in a lab of the International Training and Medical Research Training Center. (Luis Lobayo, AFP)

An Aedes Aegypti mosquito is photographed on human skin in a lab of the International Training and Medical Research Training Center. (Luis Lobayo, AFP)

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Geneva - The World Health Organisation (WHO) is taking steps to get a better grasp of the spike in children born with small heads amid the Zika virus spread in the Americas, officials from the UN health agency said in Geneva on Tuesday.

The rise in malformations, and the risk that Zika might spread beyond the Americas, caused the UN health agency to declare a global health emergency on Monday.

"We need data and to set up surveillance sites in low and middle-income countries in order to see any change" in the number of babies diagnosed with abnormally small heads, said Anthony Costello, a WHO expert on the condition known as microcephaly.

WHO and authorities in Brazil, which is at the centre of the outbreak, were already "extremely active" in carrying out such monitoring, he said.

While the timing and locations of microcephaly cases in Brazil have coincided with the spread of the Zika fever through mosquitoes, scientists have not yet been able to establish a causal link.

Costello said microcephaly had been known to be mainly related to infections with rubella and other viruses, exposure to toxins and heavy metals, genetic conditions such as Down syndrome, as well as malnutrition.

So far, only 12 of the 270 Brazilian mothers who have given birth to babies with small heads have been proved to carry the Zika virus, the WHO expert said.

The virus causes only mild symptoms like fever, headache and rashes in most patients.

WHO said in Brazil there may have been 1.5 million Zika cases and that the number of cases in the Americas could grow to 4 million within 12 months.



While WHO has not advocated travel restrictions, Costello advised women to "use contraception if you travel to the Olympics" that will be hosted in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross highlighted the need to develop an anti-poverty strategy to fight Zika and other diseases spread by mosquitoes, as the Zika virus has especially hit economically vulnerable people.

"Most of the breeding sites of mosquitoes are found in places where there is no proper sanitation or where the environment is not clean," Red Cross spokesman Benoit Matsha-Carpentier told dpa.

Poor people also lacked money to buy insect repellent or mosquito screens, he added.

The UN's World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) in Madrid meanwhile does not expect any travel restrictions to be issued for the affected countries, it said in a statement on Tuesday, adding WHO had not recommended any restrictions either.

The Health authorities in Spain said there was no need to panic. While they were expecting to find some 250 cases of the Zika virus in the country this year, those would have been brought in from abroad.

There was only "minimal" risk of infection inside Spain, Health Ministry official Fernando Simon said on Tuesday, adding that there was no risk at all at the present moment.

Even though the Mediterranean coast is home to the tiger mosquito which transmits the virus, the insect was only active from May and it was not clear yet how efficient it was at passing on the disease.

Read more on:    who  |  zika virus

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