The World Health Organization will convene an emergency meeting Monday to determine what to do about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has been ravaging parts of South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
If a pregnant woman becomes infected with the virus, it can have a devastating effect on her baby. The Zika virus has been linked to a birth defect called microcephaly, which causes an unusually small head and is associated with incomplete brain development.
According to Dr. Kamran Khan, an infectious disease specialist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, WHO will have two main objectives going into' the meeting.
The first is to determine whether to declare the Zika outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, which he explains is "basically just a technical term for a global emergency."
Khan says, "The second objective really is to make sure that the international response to this epidemic is balanced and that it doesn't cause excessive disruption or unnecessary disruption to travel and trade, which could adversely affect the global economy."
Striking a balance
He explains that, in deciding what to do, WHO must strike a delicate balance. The organization is bound by the International Health Regulations, a treaty signed by 196 countries including Canada.
"One of the central principles [of the regulations] is that any response to an epidemic shouldn't cause an unnecessary impact to affected countries. Because if it does and they start to feel that there's a disincentive to share information in a timely way, then the whole world actually loses in that situation."
At the same time, the organization must form a response that's consistent with the severity of the epidemic.
Khan says the fact that WHO is holding an emergency meeting so early is likely a response to the criticism it received for its slow response to the Ebola outbreak.
"The question is whether they'll be capable of actually mobilizing an effective response that the world is expecting and requiring of them," he says.
Khan isn't holding out hope that a Zika vaccine will arrive soon.
"With the Ebola vaccine, that had been in development for years before the outbreak in West Africa. In this instance, we're really starting at a much earlier stage," he says.
He estimates it could be years before a vaccine is available for public use, even assuming everything goes smoothly.