WHO Statement on the Zika Outbreak

Created on Monday, 15 February 2016

On 1st February, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a public health emergency of international concern regarding the Zika outbreak. Last year, more than one million people in more than 30 countries were infected by the Zika virus.

What exactly pushed the WHO to issue this declaration? There are multiple factors and risks that need to be taken into account in making this kind of decision. On a very basic level, announcing a health emergency unavoidably causes alarm amongst the public. However, on the other hand, if a decision is made to take no action or wait until more information is received, then it may become too late to act. In the case of Zika, the WHO decided to err on the side of caution and announce an emergency, instead of waiting and running the risk of being accused of negligence.

Zika is not a new virus. It has been known by experts for around 50 years already. However, very limited research has been done on the virus, particularly given that infected people are often asymptomatic and only display a mild fever, joint aches or a skin rash, all of which can easily be attributed to a range of other diseases. As such, it was not the spread of the Zika virus itself that caused concern amongst the WHO experts, but rather the increased numbers of malformation and neurological syndromes that were attributed and seemingly caused by the Zika virus outbreak.

If the WHO statement on the Zika outbreak is observed in detail, it is also clear that it refers to “the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil” as an “extraordinary threat” and “a public health emergency of international concern”, not the Zika virus itself. However, researchers still after the announcement of the emergency continue to work on proving that the increase in microcephaly cases has indeed been caused by the Zika virus.

The WHO Statement on the Zika Outbreak is available here.