The Zika outbreak is officially an international health emergency

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The explosive spread of the Zika virus, and the fear that it might be causing birth defects, is now the World Health Organization’s fourth-ever international public health emergency.

What you need to know

The decision comes after outbreaks in South America were linked to a rise in microcephaly, a condition that can mean babies’ brains don’t develop normally. The fear is that the virus is causing the condition, most likely when infected mosquitoes bite pregnant women, but that’s still not conclusive.

Read more: How to prevent the Zika virus infection

The WHO isn’t waiting around for a final verdict. It’s been criticized for taking too long to declare 2014’s Ebola outbreak an international public health emergency. Director-General Margaret Chan has said she doesn’t want people to say it failed to take action this time.

Declaring something an emergency can be a big deal: The organization’s decision can kick-start new research into fighting diseases and lead to travel and trade restrictions.

‘The Committee found no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus,’ the WHO reports.

At this point, the WHO says the Zika virus doesn’t merit those kinds of restrictions. For now, most of its efforts will go into mosquito control — with a particular focus on protecting pregnant women.

Read more: CDC warns pregnant women not to travel to these countries



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