Zika Update – WHO Declares Public Health Emergency
On Monday, the World Health Organization (“WHO”) declared the rise in birth defects linked to the Zika virus outbreak a public health emergency, marking only the fourth time that the WHO has made such a declaration. This announcement by the WHO underscores the seriousness of the Zika virus outbreak and, hopefully, will pave way for a coordinated and well-funded global response to this serious public health problem that may include intensified mosquito control efforts, expedited creation of a more rigorous diagnostic test to detect the virus, and development of a preventive vaccine.
Reports of the Zika virus first surfaced in the Western Hemisphere in May 2015. The Zika virus outbreak has now spread to 25 countries and territories worldwide. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) said no locally-transmitted cases have been reported in the continental United States. However, symptoms of the illness have been reported in travelers returning from affected countries, including a student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia who contracted the virus while traveling in Central America over winter break. That student is expected to recover.
Experts have suggested that the Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes, may explain a recent a surge in neurological disorders and the birth defect microcephaly, occurring when infants exposed to the virus are born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development. WHO officials have said that confirmed clusters of these problems, rather than exposure to the Zika virus itself (which usually causes very mild symptoms of illness), are what led to Monday’s declaration.
As elements of a global public health response are debated and take shape, health care providers must consider the various professional and business challenges associated with having to deal with infectious diseases such as the Zika virus. This may include health regulatory and risk management issues associated with developing a response strategy, and potentially labor and employment considerations facing health care employers.