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  • Zika Outbreak a 'Public Health Emergency,' Could be Linked to Guillain-Barré, Other Disorders

    The Zika outbreak has been elevated to a "public health emergency of international concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO) while health officials scramble to understand the disease, including its possible relationship to Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) and other disorders that affect the nervous system.

    As of January 30, 26 countries had reported locally transmitted Zika infections across Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. The list of countries treating these infections continues to grow. Travel-related cases have been identified in the continental United States. Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands already are experiencing ongoing transmission of the virus.

    The new status from WHO may help affected countries better respond to the virus through stepped up research, surveillance, care, and follow-up.

    The virus largely has been transmitted via mosquito bites, but a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report notes that infections have occurred through mother-to-fetus transmission, sexual transmission, blood transfusion, and lab exposure. This week, the first human-to-human transmission of the virus within US borders was reported in Texas, where a woman contracted the disease through sexual contact with her husband.

    Signs of Zika infection include fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise, and headache, but health officials are also concerned about the infection's possible relationship to disorders of the nervous system. In addition to a rise in microcephaly recorded in Brazil since October 2015, both Brazil and El Salvador have observed a dramatic increase in cases of GBS coinciding with the 2015 Zika outbreak.

    In a January 18 statement, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) recommended that “countries in the Americas prepare their healthcare facilities to respond to a potential increase in demand for specialized care for neurological syndromes.”

    WHO does not recommend a travel ban to infected countries, and while health officials anticipate clusters of outbreaks in the United States due to infected travelers, CDC says that widespread transmission “appears to be unlikely.” The CDC has issued a set of travel tips for anyone visiting areas affected by the Zika outbreak.

    The CDC asks providers to report any suspected cases to their state health department to enable laboratory diagnostic testing and avoid further transmission.

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