GENEVA, Switzerland, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- The World Health Organization will convene a committee on the Zika virus, which has spread to 23 countries and has been linked to thousands of cases of microcephaly, to determine the level of threat it poses to public health.
Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, said the agency already is taking actions for better surveillance of the disease in countries where it has been found, as well as prioritizing the development of vaccines and tools to control mosquito populations. The emergency committee will meet Feb. 1 in Geneva.
"Last year, the virus was detected in the Americas, where it is now spreading explosively," Chan said in a briefing to the WHO's executive board. "As of today, cases have been reported in 23 countries and territories in the region. The level of alarm is extremely high."
The mosquito-borne virus was discovered in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947, and mostly has affected monkeys. Although there have been small outbreaks of the virus in humans, including one in the Pacific Islands in 2007, it has posed little threat to humans and was considered a mild concern.
Brazil reported its first case of the virus in May 2015 and saw an explosion of cases, now numbering in the thousands, and it has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect characterized by children born with small heads and underdeveloped brains. The virus also has been linked with an increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome, which involves the immune system attacking the nervous system and can result in paralysis.
There are relatively few symptoms associated with Zika, leading to 80 percent or more of those infected being unaware they have the virus. Pregnant women often find out they have the virus after a defect has been detected in their fetuses.
Chan said the concerns have been raised about the virus because of the lack of vaccines or specific treatments and potential for further international spread because of the wide area where mosquitoes capable of carrying Zika are present.
The WHO has been widely criticized for its slow response to Ebola outbreaks in Africa, which critics say could have been limited if the organization jumped on the problem faster -- hence the increased alarm and effort to get ahead of Zika.
"With the Rio Olympics on our doorstep I can certainly see this having a pandemic potential," Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert from Georgetown University told The Guardian. "I'm disappointed that the WHO has not been acting proactively. They have not issued any advice about travel, about surveillance, about mosquito control."
The organization has already been increasing surveillance efforts in countries reporting Zika, microcephaly, or other conditions linked to the virus, and surveillance has been heightened in each new country reporting the virus, according to a press release.
The development of vaccines and tools to control mosquito populations are also being prioritized, though details of all efforts are expected to be debated and hashed out at the committee meeting.