by Loren G. Edelstein | January 28, 2016
The World Health Organization's director general, Margaret Chan, will convene an International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on the Zika virus and an observed increase in neurological disorders and neonatal malformations, according to a statement released today. The committee will meet on Monday, Feb. 1, in Geneva, Switzerland, to ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern. Decisions concerning the committee's membership and  advice will be made public on WHO's website. The Jan. 28 statement also provided the following update on the virus and global efforts to contain it.

Outbreak in the Americas

In May 2015, Brazil reported its first case of the Zika virus disease. Since then, the disease has spread within Brazil and to 22 other countries and territories in the region.

Arrival of the virus in some countries of the Americas, notably Brazil, has been associated with a steep increase in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads, as well as cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a poorly understood condition in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, sometimes resulting in paralysis.

A causal relationship between the Zika virus infection and birth defects and neurological syndromes has not been established, but is strongly suspected.

WHO action

WHO's Regional Office for the Americas (PAHO) has been working closely with affected countries since May 2015. PAHO has mobilized staff and members of the Global Outbreak and Response Network (GOARN) to assist ministries of health in strengthening their abilities to detect the arrival and circulation of the Zika virus through laboratory testing and rapid reporting. The aim has been to ensure accurate clinical diagnosis and treatment for patients; to track the spread of the virus and the mosquito that carries it; and to promote prevention, especially through mosquito control.

The organization is supporting the scaling up and strengthening of surveillance systems in countries that have reported cases of Zika and of microcephaly and other neurological conditions that might be associated with the virus. Surveillance also is being heightened in countries to which the virus might spread. In the coming weeks, WHO will convene experts to address critical gaps in scientific knowledge about the virus and its potential effects on fetuses, children and adults.

WHO also will prioritize the development of vaccines and new tools to control mosquito populations, as well as improving diagnostic tests.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers the latest details on Zika-affected areas, plus travel alerts and other information about the virus here.