Zika virus declared a global health emergency

The World Health Organization has announced that the explosive spread of the Zika virus in the Americas qualifies as a global health emergency, a declaration that is expected to trigger increased funding and coordinated efforts to help stop the outbreak.

The agency convened an emergency meeting of independent experts on Monday to assess the outbreak after Brazil reported a troubling link between the spread of Zika virus and a surge in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads, a birth defect known as microcephaly.

A number of Zika patients in Brazil have also developed a rare autoimmune condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause at least temporary paralysis.

“After a review of the evidence, the committee advised that the clusters of microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and public health threat to other parts of the world,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said.

Although Chan said there was no definitive proof that the Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitoes, is responsible for the birth defects, she acknowledged on Thursday that “the level of alarm is extremely high.”

CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pam Falk reports that the declaration means resources will be marshaled to aid in research, identification and the development of treatments, as well as to help stop the spread of the virus.

Falk noted that the committee issued its decision a day sooner than expected, showing a sense of the urgency in dealing with a rapid spread of the disease.

“The WHO is the lead agency, but the designation as an international public health emergency will involve UNICEF, Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the world development program (UNDP) along with the U.N. as a whole, to now deal with the crisis,” Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the Secretary General, told CBS News.

WHO estimates there could be up to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year. So far, the only cases reported in the U.S. have been in travelers who contracted it abroad, but experts believe it’s only a matter of time before the illness spreads here.

WHO officials say it could take six to nine months before science can definitively prove or disprove any connection between Zika and the spike in the number of babies born in Brazil with abnormally small heads.

“What we know so far is that the only microcephaly cases we see currently are from Brazil,” Lindmeier said, noting that abnormally small heads in newborns can have many causes – such as the effects of herbicides, alcohol use, or drugs and toxins. “This is exactly what is the concerning question: why do we see this in Brazil?”

Jimmy Whitworth, an infectious diseases expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said we might soon see more babies born with the problem elsewhere as the virus becomes entrenched in other countries.

“It could be that we’re getting the strongest signal in Brazil,” he said before WHO’s annoucement. “But having these cases occurring and pinning it to Zika is tough.”