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Zika virus an ‘international public health emergency,’ UN health agency declares

A female Aedes Aegypti mosquito in the process of acquiring a blood meal from her human host. Photo: CDC/James Gathany

1 February 2016 – Meeting today on the Zika virus outbreak, the World Health Organization announced that the recent cluster of neurological disorders and neonatal malformations reported in the Americas region constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

This comes after the WHO’s International Health Regulation Emergency Committee agreed that a causal link between this cluster and Zika virus disease is strongly suspected, noting that it constitutes an “extraordinary event” and a public health threat to other parts of the world.

“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes a public health emergency of international concern,” Margaret Chan, the Director-General of WHO told reporters in Geneva via teleconference.

Last week, she called for the emergency meeting to advise on the severity of the health threat associated with Zika virus disease in Latin America and the Caribbean. In assessing the level of threat, 18 experts and advisers looked in particular at the strong association, in time and in space, between infection of the Zika virus and the rise of detected cases of congenital malformation and neurological complications.

“The experts agree that a causal relationship between the Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven,” explained Dr. Chan. “All agree on the urgent need to coordinate international efforts to investigate and understand this relationship better,” she said.

The experts also considered patterns of recent spread and the broad geographical distribution of mosquito species that can transmit the virus. The lack of vaccines and rapid and reliable diagnostic tests, and the absence of population immunity in newly affected countries were cited as further causes for concern.

“In their view, a coordinated international response is needed to minimize the threat in affected countries and reduce the risk of further international spread,” Dr. Chan noted, accepting the advice.

She underlined that a coordinated international response is needed to improve surveillance, the detection of infections, congenital malformations, and neurological complications. The decision will also intensify the control of mosquito populations, and expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect people at risk, especially during pregnancy.

Meanwhile, the Committee found no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus.

“At present, the most important protective measures are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women,” Dr. Chan concluded.

Also speaking at the press conference was David Heymann, the Chair of the Emergency Committee, who said “it was a very difficult decision to discern between what is a public health emergency of international concern, and what should be precautionary measures because of possible relations” between Zika and microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders.

UN-brokered Intra-Syrian talks officially start in Geneva with opposition meeting

United Nations mediator and the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) at the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

1 February 2016 – The delayed intra-Syrian talks to end five years of bloody warfare officially started in Geneva today with two hours of talks between the United Nations mediator and the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC).

“As far as we are concerned, their arrival at the Palais des Nations and initiating the discussions with us is the official beginning of the Geneva talks,” said UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who already met the HNC yesterday, but at their hotel, not at the UN’s Geneva headquarters.

Mr. de Mistura, who is mediating the indirect talks between Government and opposition factions in close proximity diplomacy, which will see him shuttling between the parties in different rooms, will meet Government representative tomorrow morning and plans a second meeting with the HNC in the afternoon to go more deeply into the issues raised today.

These concern the opposition’s desire to see, for the talks’ duration, a reduction in violence, release of detainees and lifting the sieges that have driven several towns to the brink of starvation, with dozens reported dead.

“Of course we do respect very much and we heard very clearly their very clear position,” Mr. de Mistura told a news briefing. “We feel they have a very strong point because this is the voice of the Syrian people asking for that. When I meet Syrian people they tell me, please don’t just have a conference, have something also that we can see and touch while you are meeting in Geneva,” he said.

He noted that in Vienna, where the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – comprising the Arab League, the European Union, the United Nations, and 17 countries including the United States and Russia – laid the groundwork for the Geneva talks, there was a message that “in parallel there should be a serious discussion about a ceasefire.”

Mr. de Mistura has made clear that he is under no illusions about the difficulties in ending a war that has killed over 250,000 people, sent over 4 million fleeing the country, displaced 6.5 million internally, and put 13.5 million people inside the country in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

“There will be a lot of posturing, we know that, a lot of walk-outs and walk-ins because a bomb has fallen or because someone has done an attack, and you will see that happening,” he said last week.

Asked today what his immediate short-term objectives are, he replied: “The first immediate objective is to make sure that the talks continue and that everyone is on board. It’s crucial that no one should be feeling excluded and that everyone should be concretely, constructively but also effectively be part of it.”

In reply to another question, he said he has not yet received a list of detainees which he has asked for and wants “because I think that a list of the names, particularly of women and children detained, should be the first among the signals that in fact there is something different happening.”

Source: United Nations

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Karl William

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United Nations Section

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Robert Williams

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