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WHO holds emergency meeting to advise on response to Zika virus

Cilene Sousa and her son Guilherme wear anti-Zika T-shirt in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. Photograph: Georg Ismar/DPA/CorbisCilene Sousa and her son Guilherme wear anti-Zika T-shirt in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. Photograph: Georg Ismar/DPA/Corbis

An emergency World Health Organisation committee will meet on Monday to advise on the international response to the Zika virus, as the number of infected people continues to soar.

The committee will decide whether to designate the mosquito-borne virus – which has been linked to serious birth defects – a global emergency meriting immediate coordinated international action, amid criticism that it has been too slow to act.

On Thursday, the WHO’s director general, Margaret Chan said the virus was spreading explosively. The latest figures from Colombia, released over the weekend, offered support for her analysis, showing that there are 20,297 confirmed cases of the disease in the South American country, including 2,116 pregnant women, making it the second most affected country after Brazil.

According to Colombian officials, the number of pregnant women confirmed to be affected has doubled in a week.

In Brazil, Zika has been linked, although not definitively so, to 4,000 cases ofmicrocephaly, in which babies are born with smaller than normal brains, raising global fears about a virus that was previously considered relatively benign.

Concerns have been amplified by the fact that the Olympics take place in Rio de Janeiro this summer, when around half a million tourists are expected to visit the city.

The WHO, which says there could be as many as 4m clinical cases of Zika in the Americas – although some experts think the figure could be much higher – is under pressure to come up with a speedy and effective plan of action after being sharply criticised for its slow response to the Ebola crisis.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of public health law at Georgetown University, who has worked with the WHO and written extensively about pandemics and policy, said Zika should have declared an emergency as soon as the link between the virus and microcephaly was made. “My chief criticism is of WHO in Geneva,” he told Reuters. “After being widely condemned for acting late on Ebola, it is now sitting back with Zika.”

But officials at the WHO, the United Nations health organisation, say the precise nature of any link between Zika and microcephaly remains unclear.

Although the disease does not pose the same threat to life as Ebola, and there has only been one case of possible person-to-person sexual transmission, according to the WHO, experts have warned that Zika poses a serious threat because of a number of its characteristics. These include the fact that an estimated 80% of infected people do not have any symptoms and that there is no vaccine in prospect.

The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmit the virus also thrive in urban conditions and are spreading as global warming takes effect.

An Indonesian research institute said on Sunday that it had found one positive Zika case on Sumatra island in a 27-year-old man who had never travelled overseas. The virus has previously been detected in a small number of people in south-east Asia, including one case in Indonesia, reports suggest. The Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta, said it concluded that the virus had been circulating in the country “for a while”. – theguardian –

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