WHO has only declared three public health emergencies in its history—Zika virus just became the fourth

WHO leaders sounding the alarm in Geneva today.
WHO leaders sounding the alarm in Geneva today.
Image: Reuters/Pierre Albouy
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The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that the Zika virus is a global health emergency, escalating the level of alarm the agency signaled last week when it announced the creation of a special committee to evaluate the threat.

The mosquito-borne virus has been linked to dangerous neurological impairments including newborn microcephaly, with thousands of new cases reported in Brazil. Health authorities have warned pregnant women throughout the Americas to take precautions, including advice to delay pregnancies in some countries.

As a result of the declaration of an international public health emergency, countries will be expected to coordinate measures to prevent its further spread. No trade or travel restrictions have been advised by the committee. WHO itself cannot enforce any recommended policies.

This is only the fourth such declaration in the agency’s history. Previously, international public health emergencies were declared in response to the Ebola virus, polio, and swine flu.