The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has dedicated an emergency operations center staffed around the clock to address the threat from Zika, a mosquito-borne virus linked to severe birth defects in thousands of babies in Brazil, agency officials told Reuters.
The CDC set up such command centers to handle the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the Haiti cholera epidemic in 2010. This time, the team includes many more experts on pregnancy, given the unusual effect of the Zika virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on January 28 that it would consider whether to declare Zika an international health emergency, and estimated that as many as 4 million people could be affected by the virus as it spreads from Latin America and the Caribbean to North America in the coming months.
The CDC has been working with the Brazilian Ministry of Health and WHO since early November to understand the sudden increase in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size, that appears linked to Zika virus infection. This week, Brazil reported that approximately 3,700 cases of microcephaly are being studied for signs of Zika.
In related news, Canadian researchers have announced that a vaccine for the Zika virus could be ready for emergency use before year-end. Dr. Gary Kobinger, part of a consortium working on the vaccine, told Reuters in an interview that the first stage of testing on humans could begin as early as August. If successful, that may allow the vaccine to be used during a public health emergency in October or November.
In the U.S., researchers have two potential candidates for a Zika vaccine and may begin clinical trials in people by the end of this year, but a vaccine will not be available for public use for several years, officials recently announced.