Written by CNN Staff, CNN
WHO has named a new variant of concern from the Zika virus as the top pandemic threat of 2019, citing “extraordinary” progress to control the virus’ spread and a growing concern about a new respiratory virus in Singapore.
The “epidemiologic category B disease” is an added consideration for WHO as part of the 2018-2019 global health threat assessment, announced on Thursday. It’s listed alongside Malaria, influenza, Ebola, Zika and HIV as the top three on the WHO’s Global Health Threat Assessment Report.
“The new named viruses are all endemic, widespread and acquired — a trend we expect to continue over the next 10 years,” WHO said in a statement, adding that the classification was designed to identify emerging threats “while they are still under the radar.”
This year, the “epidemiologic category A” includes a new pneumonia called shingles and Papua New Guinea’s Zika virus, as well as Dengue, seasonal African malaria and HIV.
A new respiratory virus was also added: Coccidioidomycosis, named after the disease’s histologically-identified lesion.
Singapore’s Zika outbreak began in 2016 and spread throughout Southeast Asia. It has been followed by separate outbreaks in Vietnam and Cambodia, and WHO said there are likely to be more outbreaks as the disease enters new countries and regions.
The new virus has led to the outbreak of Zika-like illness in Japan and a New Zealand report has found infections in Auckland babies born to infected mothers, health officials in Beijing said.
Why is the virus named “epidemiologic”?
Global health experts point to a number of factors as reason for the virus’ classification, including its frequent occurrence across the world, where it can travel, and its ability to sustain its spread when disease control measures fail to work.
The WHO also lists as key factors the lack of molecular detection of the virus in African countries, meaning there is no cure for the disease. This is despite efforts to develop a vaccine and invest in research on the virus.
“It can spread very easily from country to country, period. Like the Ebola outbreak. It’s quite a problem.” Dr. Lee Chung Yeon, a professor at the National University of Singapore, told CNN’s Gupta on Wednesday.
WHO experts also said the Zika infection — in humans — is highly contagious, capable of transmitting through sexual contact, blood, urine, saliva, conjunctivitis, respiratory droplets and droplets of water.
Zika has long been a concern for public health officials, given its link to birth defects. For example, the number of cases of microcephaly among children born to mothers infected by Zika spiked more than fivefold when the virus was circulating in Brazil in 2015, according to the World Health Organization.
“Zika is often a completely unexpected surprise for those who are surprised that mosquitoes would transmit these viruses to humans, which in turn transmit them to pregnant women. For that, I can only say that I’m proud to be a Singaporean, and also proud to know that we have this strength and resilience as a nation,” Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said in a statement this week.
The official synopsis of the report indicates the WHO believes public health policy and responses to Zika/Zika infection are making “important progress in containing ongoing and emerging epidemics,” while a new public health concern has been added to the list of official global health threats in 2019.