World Health Organization declares Zika virus global health emergency

In May of last year, an outbreak of the Zika virus was discovered in Brazil.  Less than a year later, the virus has spread to over twenty countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, prompting the World Health Organization to declare it an international public health emergency in early February.

An increasing body of evidence links the Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, to microcephaly, a condition which causes babies to be born with unusually small heads and, consequently, incomplete brain development.  The possible connection was first brought to researchers’ attention with the surge in cases of microcephaly in Brazil.

Although Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, acknowledged that the link remains hazy, she said the emergency designation would enable the organization to combine efforts to obtain crucial answers.

Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO
Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO

“The evidence is growing and it’s getting strong,” she told the New York Times. “So I accepted, even on microcephaly alone, that it is sufficient to call an emergency. We need a coordinated international response.”

Researchers have already begun investigating the effects of Zika in pregnant women in at least three infected countries: Brazil, Colombia, and El Salvador.

Despite declaring the virus a public health emergency, the WHO has refrained from issuing travel or trade restrictions.  Nevertheless, the organization has suggested pregnant women avoid traveling to areas where Zika has been detected.

Some global health experts, however, argue that political considerations have colored the WHO’s judgement.  With Brazil gearing up to host this summer’s Olympics, any prohibitions on travel to the country would deliver a significant blow to the government.

“I think there was a political overtone,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “If it were my daughter and she was pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant, I would absolutely warn her off of going to a Zika-affected country, and the WHO should have said that.”

Even Pope Francis has spoken out on the topic.  In a controversial statement seemingly at odds with Church doctrine, he suggested that contraceptives could be used to prevent the spread of the virus.  Despite calling abortion a “crime,” the Pope specified that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”  

Pope Francis speaks aboard the papal flight from Mexico to Rome.
Pope Francis speaks aboard the papal flight from Mexico to Rome.

He cited the Church’s response to the Congo Crisis, a period of war and political instability which lasted from 1960 to 1964, as a historical precedent.  Due to the threat of rape, Pope Paul VI issued a special exception to the Church’s ban on most forms of birth control and allowed African nuns to use contraceptives.

Still, some Catholic leaders disagree with the Pope.

“Contraceptives are not a solution,” said Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, Secretary General of the National Council of Bishops of Brazil, in an interview in early February. “There is not a single change in the church’s position.”

These conflicting views leave women in Latin America, where the majority of the population is Catholic, in a tricky situation.  In December, Brazilian authorities advised women not to get pregnant.  In January, Colombian officials recommended women delay pregnancy until July.  Later that month, El Salvador’s Deputy Health Minister, Eduardo Espinoza, suggested women “take steps to plan their pregnancies and avoid getting pregnant between this year and the next.”

The WHO, however, discourages such statements.

“There are many questions that need to be answered before making that recommendation,” said Dr. Marcos Espinal, Director of Communicable Diseases for the WHO’s regional office, the Pan American Health Organization.  “You have to assess the risk in making such a recommendation of how it will impact the birthrate of a country.”

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