The World Health Organization today declared that the Zika virus epidemic is a “global emergency” because of its link to babies born with microcephaly, a potentially fatal condition resulting in infants with abnormally small heads.

Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, officially labeled the outbreak’s association to microcephaly a “public health emergency of international concern,” a designation the organization reserves for “extraordinary events,” which it defines as follows:

… a situation that is: serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action.

Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, on January 28.

The association between microcephaly and Zika infection is “strongly suspected” but has yet to be scientifically verified. It’s not clear, the WHO admitted, how long that would take. But with more than 3,000 cases reported in Brazil, however, it’s clear the WHO is not waiting to find out.

The organization is calling on governments to supply all women of childbearing age with the information they need regarding the risks — as well as provide access to counseling for women who are already pregnant.

The most important protective measures are preventing mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, wearing mosquito repellent, and avoiding Zika-affected areas.

Dr. Chan called for a coordinated international response to intensify the control of mosquito populations and expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines.

The committee did not, however, find any public health justification to restrict travel or trade in Zika-affected countries entirely.

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