The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has come forward with devastating news: the Zika Virus, a virus believed to cause babies to be born with serious brain defects, has had its first reported case in the U.S. and it’s expected to continue “spreading rapidly.”
“The level of alarm is extremely high,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the W.H.O., in a speech in Geneva.
The Zika virus is not life-threatening to those that are exposed to it, but it causes serious brain defects such as microcephaly in babies—babies born with abnormally small heads—and the rare nervous system disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome.
According to The New York Times, the reported cases of microcephaly have “climbed to 4,180 since October, a 7 percent increase from the previous tally last week. Before the epidemic, Brazil recorded only about 150 cases of microcephaly a year.”
22 countries in the Americas have had confirmed reports of the virus—now including the U.S. with the first confirmed case coming from Virginia.
Sylvain Aldighieri, the head of W.H.O.'s epidemic response team in the Americas, predicts that as many as three to four million Americans could be exposed to the virus within the next year.
“As I told you, we have big gaps in terms of confirmation of the real situation,” he said. “These are estimates. These are mathematical estimations.”
Researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) have spoken out, saying that W.H.O. needs to learn the hard lessons of the Ebola virus. It’s well-documented that while the Ebola virus began to spread rapidly, W.H.O. remained indecisive and slow, not taking the necessary steps as quickly as they should have. Researchers go as far as to say that this led to the death of thousands of people.
The paper also points out that although W.H.O. has not organized an emergency team to assess the situation, they have a meeting set for Monday.
Some countries have already taken matters into their own hands, taking extreme action to combat the virus; El Salvador, one of the hardest-hit countries, has recommended women to not get pregnant before 2018. Brazil reportedly has mobilized the military and health workers to spread awareness after top health officials announced that they were “badly losing the battle” against the virus.
While there is a strong link between the spread of the virus and the rise in microcephaly, W.H.O. isn’t ready to say that the virus actually causes the brain defects.
“It’s really important to understand the difference between associations and causations,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, a W.H.O. assistant director general, adding that there are still many questions that need to be answered about whether the Zika virus and microcephaly are directly linked.
Regardless, that isn’t going to stop countries from staying on high alert against the spread of the virus.
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