WHO creates global unit to respond to Zika outbreak

WHO creates global unit to respond to Zika outbreak
Fears that the Zika virus, which is blamed for a surge in birth defects in South America, could spread globally prompted the WHO to create a global response unit.
3 min read
03 February, 2016
South America confronts the Zika virus [Getty]
The World Health Organisation said on Tuesday it had created a global unit to respond to the Zika virus, voicing fears the disease blamed for a surge in birth defects in South America could spread across Africa and Asia.

"We have now set up a global response unit, which brings together all people across WHO in headquarters, in the regions, to deal with the formal response" to Zika, said WHO expert Anthony Costello.

The UN health body had said on Monday that a surge in cases in South America of microcephaly - a devastating condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain - was likely caused by the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and declared the situation a "public health emergency of international concern."

The WHO is under pressure to move swiftly to tackle Zika, after admitting it was slow to respond to the recent Ebola outbreak that ravaged parts of west Africa.

Costello, a paediatrician and an expert on microcephaly, told reporters in Geneva that the WHO's new response unit would aim to use "all the lessons we've learned from the Ebola crisis" to help quickly address Zika and the birth defects and neurological conditions it is believed to cause.

He emphasised the urgency of rapid action, stressing there was no reason to believe the crisis would remain limited to South America, where 25 countries so far have reported Zika cases.
We are worried that this could also spread back into other areas of the world
- WHO expert Anthony Costello

"We are worried that this could also spread back into other areas of the world where the population may not be immune, and we know that the mosquitos that carry Zika virus ... are present through most of Africa, parts of southern Europe and many parts of Asia, particularly south Asia," he said.

Underlining his point, Thai officials announced on Tuesday that a man had contracted the virus in the country.

Cape Verde, which lies off the coast of west Africa, has also already reported domestic Zika cases.


Jitters over the virus have spread far beyond the affected areas to Europe and North America, where dozens of cases have been identified among travellers returning from Latin America.

Health officials on Tuesday reported that a person in Texas has become infected with the Zika virus through sex in the first case of the illness being transmitted within the United States amid the current outbreak in Latin America.

The unidentified person had not travelled but had sex with a person who had returned from Venezuela and fallen ill with Zika, Dallas County health officials said. The US Centers for Disease Control issued a statement saying lab tests confirmed the non-traveler was infected with Zika.

Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads dengue fever, and was first discovered in Uganda in 1947.
It's very rare, but this is not new
- Dallas County Health and Human Services director

But investigators had been exploring the possibility it could be sexually transmitted. There was a report of a Colorado researcher who picked up the virus in Africa and apparently spread it to his wife back home in 2008, and it was found in one man's semen in Tahiti.

"It's very rare, but this is not new," Zachary Thompson, director of the Dallas County Health and Human Services, told WFAA-TV in Dallas. "We always looked at the point that this could be transmitted sexually."

The World Health Organisation on Monday declared a global emergency over the rapidly spreading Zika virus, saying it is an "extraordinary event" that poses a threat to the rest of the world.

WHO officials say it could be six to nine months before science proves or disproves any connection between the virus and babies born with abnormally small heads.