The Zika virus spreading across Central and South America constitutes a “public health emergency of international concern,” the World Health Organization declared on Monday.
The virus has been linked to a sharp increase in birth defects, including a particularly devastating condition known as microcephaly.
An emergency committee of 18 experts established by the WHO took the step of sounding the alarm on Zika after an all-day meeting in Geneva on Monday. The designation will help free up resources and marshall world governments to prioritize research and other actions to fight the illness.
In addition to birth abnormalities, the Zika virus has also been tied to an uptick in adult neurological disorders such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis.
Zika alone would not be a public health emergency, said David L. Heymann, the chair of the emergency committee, since the symptoms of the virus itself tend to be mild. It’s the association with microcephaly and neurological disorders that caused the declaration to be made.
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