As WHO continues its work to guide the international response to Zika, the Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, has arrived in the northeast of the country to visit the area most affected by neurological disorders suspected of being linked to the virus, including microcephaly in babies.
Dr Chan is visiting a hospital and clinical research centre in Recife, the capital of Pernambuco state where a significant number of pregnant women who contracted the Zika virus during pregnancy have delivered babies with microcephaly. The Professor Fernando Figueira Integral Medicine Institute (IMIP) is the National Referral Center for Mother and Child Care Programs and its outreach programmes support the health care needs of vulnerable populations in the favelas situated on the outskirts of the city.
Last year, as Zika was spreading through northeastern Brazil, thousands of children with suspected microcephaly were born in the region. Though many causes of microcephaly exist, suspicion has focused on Zika because the incidence of such cases has increased in areas where the virus has taken hold. In addition, several countries, including Brazil, have increased reports of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a neurological disorder that can result in paralysis.
Dr Carissa Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is also taking part in the visit, which will contribute to an ongoing assessment of the Zika virus situation and response. WHO’s Regional Office for the Americas (AMRO/PAHO) has been working closely with affected countries since May 2015, when reports of Zika virus first emerged from this part of Brazil.
Zika strategic response
Last week WHO launched its global Strategic Response Framework and Joint Operations Plan which focuses on mobilizing and coordinating partners, experts and resources to respond to the spread of Zika virus and the neonatal malformations and neurological conditions associated with it.
As part of the high-level visit to Brazil, Dr Chan has visited Brazil’s National Center for Risk and Disaster Management (CENAD) in Brasilia and met with President Dilma Rousseff.
At the beginning of February, following a first meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Zika, Dr Chan announced that the cluster of microcephaly cases and neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
“A coordinated international response is needed to improve surveillance, the detection of infections, congenital malformations, and neurological complications, to intensify the control of mosquito populations, and to expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect people at risk, especially during pregnancy,” Dr Chan said.
The Committee advised, however, that there was no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus.