WHO declares Zika virus international emergency

GENEVA (WNCN) — The World Health Organization has announced that the explosive spread of the Zika virus in the Americas is an “extraordinary event” that merits being declared an international emergency.

The agency convened an emergency meeting of independent experts on Monday to assess the outbreak after noting a suspicious link between Zika’s arrival in Brazil last year and a surge in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads.

Although WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said there was no definitive proof that the Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes, is responsible for the birth defects, she acknowledged on Thursday that “the level of alarm is extremely high.”

The last such public health emergency was declared for the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people.

WHO estimates there could be up to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year.

According to the CDC, about one in five people who are infected actually get sick. Among those people, the organization says “the illness is usually mild.” The most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis (red eyes). The CDC is posting responses to commonly asked questions about the virus here: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/disease-qa.html

In North Carolina, hospital systems are taking steps to inform patients about the potential risk.

At WakeMed, spokeswoman Kristin Kelly Gruman says, “WakeMed is following CDC guidelines, working closely with our pregnant patients who may have traveled to an area known as a Zika risk. Screening questions have been in place within WakeMed for about two weeks, asking all pregnant women about recent travel and symptoms.

“Our OB/GYN and maternal-fetal medicine practices and providers are discussing precautions for pregnant women and those trying to become pregnant. As the CDC recommends, pregnant women should consider postponing travel to any impacted area. We also encourage women trying to become pregnant to consult with their healthcare providers before traveling to these impacted areas.”

UNC REX Healthcare is providing updates about the Zika virus here: https://www.rexhealthblog.com/

Officials at Duke Health have offered travel guidelines in response to the virus, which can be viewed here: https://today.duke.edu/2016/01/zika-0

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has not reported any cases of Zika virus in the state. However, there have been cases in other states where people traveling to affected regions have contracted the illness. NC DHHS plans to release additional details about measure the department is taking on Tuesday.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report

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