The World Health Organization has declared a “public health emergency of international concern” related to the clusters of microcephaly and other neurological complications reported in Brazil and earlier in French Polynesia.

Though there is a strong association between these cases and the Zika virus , a causal link still has not been scientifically proven, according to the WHO.

The WHO’s emergency declaration clears the way for the international health community to move forward with a coordinated response. Dr. Margaret Chan , WHO Director-General, said her organization plans to take a number of precautionary measures, including improving surveillance and detection of infections, congenital malformations, and neurological complications. They will also work with countries to intensify control of mosquito populations and help expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect at-risk populations.

The recommendations came after a Feb. 1 meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, which Dr. Chan convened last week in response to the Zika virus outbreak and the observed increase in neurological disorders and neonatal malformations.

The group of 18 experts advised that the clusters of microcephaly and other complications constitute an “extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world.” The group did not recommend any restrictions on travel or trade with areas where the Zika virus transmission is ongoing, however.

“At present, the most important protective measures are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women,” Dr. Chan said during a press briefing.

Dr. Chan said it’s unclear how long it will take to determine if Zika virus is causing the uptick in microcephaly and other congenital malformations and neurological abnormalities, but health officials are working to set up case-control studies that are scheduled to start in the next 2 weeks.

mschneider@frontlinemedcom.com

On Twitter @maryellenny

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