Georgetown Experts Laud World Health Organization Meeting on Zika Virus

Posted in GUMC Stories

On Monday, Feb. 1, the World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan declared the recent clusters of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities strongly associated with the Zika virus outbreak in the Americas a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC), and called for a coordinated international response to streamline surveillance and accelerate research to determine the links between microcephaly and Zika.

Jan. 28, 2016–The announcement that the World Health Organization (WHO) will convene an International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on the Zika virus Monday comes only a day after two Georgetown experts called on the organization to call such a meeting in a JAMA Viewpoint (new window).

Lawrence O. Gostin and Dr. Daniel Lucey of Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law wrote the viewpoint on January 27, the day before World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan called the meeting.

“Last year, the virus was detected in the Americas, where it is now spreading explosively,” Chan told WHO board of directors. “As of today cases have been reported in 23 countries and territories in the region. The level of alarm is extremely high.”

Critical First Step

Until recently, the Zika virus was regarded as a mild disease. But the arrival of the virus in some countries, particularly Brazil, has been associated with a significant increase in the births of babies with abnormally small heads and brain damage (microcephaly).

“The Director-General has taken a critical first step in recognizing the seriousness of an emerging epidemic,” said Gostin, faculty director at the O’Neill Institute and a professor of medicine at Georgetown School of Medicine. “She now must urgently mobilize international resources to curb the rapid spread of Zika worldwide, including aggressive mosquito control, active surveillance, accelerated vaccine research and travel advisories for pregnant women.”

“It is far better to be over-prepared than to wait until a Zika epidemic spins out of control,” Gostin said.

Dr. Lucey was also pleased by Chan’s announcement.

“I join many international colleagues in thanking WHO Director-General Dr. Chan for convening the WHO Emergency Committee on Zika next Monday, Feb. 1 and for each of the action steps that Dr. Chan specified going forward now and after Feb. 1,” he said.

Ethical Imperative

The first case of Zika virus in Brazil was reported in May 2015. Since then, the disease has spread to 22 additional countries and territories in the region. A causal relationship has not yet been established between Zika virus infection and birth defects, as well as neurological syndromes, but it is strongly suspected.

“If the association between microcephaly and Zika virus is confirmed,” said Gostin, “there will be an ethical imperative to protect women of childbearing age from contracting the infection. The public will demand well-funded, proactive leadership from the World Health Organization.”

In addition to his role at the O’Neill Institute, Lucey is an adjunct professor of medicine.

Click here for a list of Georgetown subject matter experts who can provide comment and context on Zika in the areas of infectious disease (clinical and molecular biology), biology, global health, maternal health and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

The O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University is the premier center for health law, scholarship and policy. Learn more at

Kat Zambon
GUMC Communications