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Zika, the mosquito-borne virus linked to more than 4,000 cases of a rare birth defect in Brazil, has been classified a “public health emergency” by the World Health Organization (WHO). The new classification will allow the WHO to draw from a $15 million fund set aside for emergency outbreaks, according to NPR.

WHO Opens Floodgate For Birth Defect Research

Strong evidence has associated Zika, a virus first identified in Uganda, to microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and often insufficient brain development. The virus, which appears to pass from a mother to her unborn infant, hasn’t been limited to Brazil. Reuters reports that over 2,100 pregnant women in Colombia have been diagnosed with the infection, with smaller outbreaks in 20 other South and Central American countries.

Dr. Margaret Chan, who leads the World Health Organization, isn’t going as far as some Latin American presidents, who have instructed citizens to avoid getting pregnant. With proper precautions, like wearing long sleeves and using bed nets at night, Chan says tourists, even pregnant women, should still be able to visit affected countries safely.

Zika does spread rapidly, however, with the number of infections in Colombia more than doubling in one week.

As a “public health emergency,” Zika should garner more public attention, and in time, a workable vaccine. With the virus now labeled a serious threat, a global response is expected, with international teams of researchers joining forces to work on effective prevention measures. Beyond the search for a vaccine, money should pour into local efforts to protect South and Central American communities that don’t have ready access to bed nets.

While the link between Zika and microcephaly is strong (both infections and cases of the birth defect surged at the same time), the association has yet to be proven conclusively. Tying environmental conditions to birth defects is rarely this easy. In Washington State, 3 counties have been afflicted by an “epidemic” of anencephaly, a neural tube defect like microcephaly, but no cause has been suggested yet.

Birth Defect Crises Are Rarely Focus Of Attention

Birth defect research is hard work, involving genetics just as much as it does infectious diseases, environmental toxins and some pharmaceutical drugs, all of which have been found to alter the course of an unborn child’s development. But too often, the efforts of researchers are hampered by insufficient funding, which seems to get lower every year. Ineffective, fractured tracking mechanisms compound the problem. In the US, the anencephaly “outbreak” in Washington went unheeded for nearly 5 years.

From any perspective, birth defects just don’t seem a cause for governmental concern, despite being the leading cause of infant mortality. It takes a true global phenomenon, like the eruption of Zika, to marshal significant investments in investigation and prevention. Which means many families, like those who have filed Zofran lawsuits, may be forced years before finding any answers.

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