Health

Zika remains global emergency, virus still spreading, says WHO

The World Health Organization says the outbreak of Zika remains an international health emergency and the virus is continuing to infect new countries.

Singapore reports 38 new cases of Zika virus

The WHO emergency committee said there were no reports of Zika symptoms in people returning from the Rio Olympics, in line with predictions that the Games would not lead to a significant increase in transmission. (Jeffrey Arguedas/EPA)

The World Health Organization says the outbreak of Zika remains an international health emergency and the virus is continuing to infect new countries.

The UN health agency convened its expert committee this week to assess the latest status of the epidemic.

Dr. David Heymann, the committee's chair, said Friday that considerable gaps remain in understanding Zika and the complications linked to the mosquito-borne disease — including brain-damaged babies — and WHO concluded that the outbreak remains a global emergency.

Dr. David Heymann, chair of the WHO emergency committee, said that in the absence of any effective treatments or vaccines for the disease - and given past failures to wipe out the mosquitoes that mostly spread Zika - it will largely be up to individuals to avoid infection through the use of insect repellent and wearing long sleeves and trousers. (CBC)

WHO noted that Brazil has not reported any confirmed cases of Zika following the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, although studies are ongoing in the country to figure out why certain regions have seen an increase in babies being born with abnormally small heads.

To date, Zika has infected people in 72 countries and territories since 2007, with 69 reporting cases since 2015.

On Friday, Singapore reported 38 new cases of locally transmitted Zika infection.

Authorities in Singapore, a regional financial centre and transit hub, said they had detected 189 people with the Zika virus in total, including two pregnant woman.

The first locally transmitted Zika infection was reported on Saturday.

Some countries praised for Zika responses

Singapore has been a "model country" in its response, involving significant lab work, public health measures and vector [mosquito] control, said Dr. Peter Salama, executive director of the World Health Organization's health emergency program.

"Brazil has followed a similar model, giving us quick reporting," he told reporters at a briefing Friday after the latest meeting of the WHO's emergency committee on Zika. 

Despite that assessment, the illness remains a "public health emergency of international concern," Salama said.

Heymann said Africa is of special interest, because the scope of the outbreaks there remains unknown, due to a lack of reporting.

Singapore has been able to identify cases "very early," Heymann said, adding it has a "very technically advanced health system."

West African country reports Zika cases

Four cases of Zika infection were confirmed in Guinea-Bissau in July.

The West African country reported it had five cases of microcephaly, the birth defect linked to Zika, shortly before declaring the outbreak, which the WHO said stems from the African strain of the virus, not the Asian strain that has been spreading quickly in Brazil and elsewhere in the Americas since 2015.

Salama said that while Zika samples from the country appear to be from the African strain, it hasn't been determined whether the African strain of the virus might also be responsible for the neurological problems.

Brazil has the vast majority of cases of microcephaly, or infants born with abnormally small heads. The WHO has investigated 1,845 cases so far.

According to the Florida Department of Health, there have been 47 cases of Zika in people believed to have contracted the virus through local mosquitoes. Active transmission is thought to be occurring only in two small areas around Miami.

After Hurricane Hermine came ashore along the northern Gulf Coast early Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged people to dump standing water, "no matter how small," to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds.

The main symptoms of Zika infection include a skin rash with or without mild fever, muscle ache, fatigue, and headache. Up to 80 per cent of cases are asymptomatic.

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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