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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Feb. 8, 2016 — On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, declared Zika a Public Health Emergency International Concern (PHEIC), because of growing concerns of the suspected association between Zika and the rise in detected cases of congenital malformations and neurological complications in newborn babies. The declaration allows WHO to galvanize resources to coordinate an international response. This is only the fourth time a PHEIC has been declared, following Swine Flu in 2009 and polio and Ebola in 2014.

Dr. Chan’s decision followed the advice of a group of international experts comprising WHO’s the International Health Regulations (IHR) Emergency Committee. The discussion focused on the link between the sharp increase of Zika infections and an observed rise of birth defects such as microcephaly, as well as Guilliain-Barré syndrome, first reported by local health authorities in French Polynesia in 2013 and in Brazil in 2015.

Zika is caused by a virus transmitted by the Aedes mosquito — the same mosquito that transmits dengue and Chikungunya, characterized by its black and white-striped legs. There is currently no treatment or vaccine for Zika. Zika symptoms include a mild fever, skin rash and conjunctivitis (pink eye) lasting for about 2-7 days. Not everyone infected with Zika manifests symptoms. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that only one in every five people with Zika experience symptoms, raising concern that Zika infections are underreported. The virus can be diagnosed using polymerase chain reaction (PRM) and blood samples.

The Sabin Vaccine Institute supports the WHO decision to declare the recent outbreak of Zika virus a global health emergency. We believe the highly infectious nature of Zika’s growing outbreak, coupled with its possible link to birth defects and other neurological conditions, warrants urgent collaboration among global health partners to accelerate the development of a sustainable measure against Zika — a vaccine. 

To facilitate an efficient and effective response, the global health community must strengthen access to scientific evidence and close knowledge gaps in regions most affected by Zika, building information flows among stakeholders.

Global health advocates must also strengthen vector control initiatives and reinforce public awareness of techniques to prevent mosquito bites, currently the most protective measure available. Practices such as the use of insecticides, eliminating standing water and decreasing skin exposure in areas where the Aedes mosquito has been found should be prioritized and articulated extensively.

Lastly, disseminating previous lessons learned from fighting similar diseases, such as dengue fever, will be instrumental to quickly responding to Zika, assessing the potential for developing a vaccine, keeping communities and international agencies informed and building an integrated response against Zika.

About the Sabin Vaccine Institute

Sabin Vaccine Institute is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization of scientists, researchers, and advocates dedicated to reducing needless human suffering caused by vaccine preventable and neglected tropical diseases. Sabin works with governments, leading public and private organizations, and academic institutions to provide solutions for some of the world's most pervasive health challenges. Since its founding in 1993 in honor of the oral polio vaccine developer, Dr. Albert B. Sabin, the Institute has been at the forefront of efforts to control, treat and eliminate these diseases by developing new vaccines, advocating use of existing vaccines and promoting increased access to affordable medical treatments. For more information please visit www.sabin.org.

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