In a show of concern for a public health threat that is raising anxiety worldwide, President Barack Obama this week met with U.S. health leaders to address the spread of the Zika virus.
The emerging Zika virus disease, which is spread by mosquitoes, has been linked to birth defects in South America among babies whose mothers were infected. Zika could soon be prevalent in the U.S. since mosquitoes of the genus Aedes, which carry the virus, are widespread during the summer.
The World Health Organization is convening an urgent meeting on Feb. 1 to decide whether the virus poses a public health emergency. “The level of alarm is extremely high,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told its executive board.
This week, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention warned pregnant women not to travel to countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean where Zika is present, and WHO urged enhanced mosquito control measures in threatened areas.
“Zika virus will continue to spread and will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found,” WHO said in a statement.
The scientific community has called for more research into the virus, and Obama agrees. In his meeting with leaders of U.S. health agencies, Obama emphasized the need to accelerate research and to provide members of the public with information about the virus and how to protect themselves. One of the most important research needs is confirming the link between Zika and microcephaly—a congenitally small head and brain.
Some of that work has already started, NIH Director Francis Collins said in a blog post. “Research is underway to understand better Zika’s effects on the body, to develop diagnostic tests to identify the virus rapidly in people, and to ramp up testing of therapeutics that might be effective. Importantly, [federal] researchers already are working on vaccine candidates to prevent Zika virus from infecting people.”
Known in African and Asian animal populations for decades, the Zika virus was thought to cause only a mild flulike illness and rash when it infected humans. But this new pandemic appears to be different. The virus popped up in South America for the first time in May 2015. Since then, it has been linked to an increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly.