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World

World Health Organization Focuses On Zika-Linked Microcephaly Cases

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Mosquitoes are spreading the Zika virus throughout the Americas. President Obama has just asked Congress for $1.8 billion to combat the disease here and abroad. A small portion of that money would go to support the World Health Organization, which has a mixed record when it comes to emergency responses. David Heymann chairs the WHO's emergency committee on the Zika virus, and he says researchers are still most concerned about a potential link to children born with small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.

DAVID HEYMANN: It's a worldwide emergency because of what's not understood and known. If there is an association, it's a very serious association, and it's one for which a whole series of measures will be required, including an eventual vaccine. What we do know now is that if you can stop mosquitoes from breeding and if you can prevent them from biting, that people will be safe from being infected by the Zika virus but also by dengue and by chikungunya - two viruses that never had public health emergencies called because they never had this impact or suspected impact.

MCEVERS: The WHO has been repeatedly criticized for being slow to respond to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Will the response to Zika be different?

HEYMANN: Well, certainly the public health emergency is different. In Ebola, the emergency was because what was definitely known from years of research on the Ebola virus.

MCEVERS: But even though we knew a lot about Ebola, there had been a lot of research done about Ebola, the response was still very slow. Is that a concern at the WHO that - to make sure that this - the response here is ramped up as quickly as possible?

HEYMANN: Well, the emergency committee is not a part of WHO. We are all 12 external participants in this. So I can't speak for WHO, but I can say that in the discussions, we looked at other diseases which are occurring in the world, including the MERS coronavirus, and there's never been an emergency call for that virus. Yet it continues to spread. It continues to emerge from nature into humans, and It's not known how it emerges and how to stop that emergence. So in looking at that, we felt that this was something which needed to be addressed much more rapidly with better coordinated research among researchers.

MCEVERS: There was a report last week that suggested that the sharing of information on Zika among these researchers might not be going so smoothly, that some researchers are having trouble getting samples of the virus that they need from others. What do you know about that?

HEYMANN: Well, I expect that that may be true in some instances. And what's important is that countries all share the data that they have so that we can have a public health solution more rapidly. This occurred in the SARS outbreak if you remember back in 2003. Scientists were sharing their information widely, and solutions were found very rapidly. And the outbreak was stopped.

MCEVERS: In Brazil, does the Olympics present an additional public health concern given that, you know, people from all over the world - some estimates of half a million people from all over the world - are coming to a city that's in the middle of an outbreak?

HEYMANN: It'd be early to make recommendations at this point. What is important is to make precautionary recommendations in general, which have been done, which will give people the understanding that this virus, like chikungunya and dengue, is transmitted by day-biting mosquitoes and that they must protect themselves.

MCEVERS: Right.

HEYMANN: And at the same time, communities must make sure that there isn't standing water where these mosquitoes can breed.

MCEVERS: That's David Heymann. He chairs the World Health Organization's emergency committee on the Zika virus. Thank you so much.

HEYMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.