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WHO declares Zika virus an international public health emergency -

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MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The World Health Organisation has this morning formally declared the mosquito-borne zika virus to be a public health threat around the world.

The virus is suspected of causing thousand of birth defects in Brazil. However no firm link has yet to be established.

Lucy Carter reports.

LUCY CARTER: The panel of 18 experts gathered by the World Health Organization was unanimous in its decision.

MARGARET CHAN: Members of committee agree that the situation meets the conditions for a public health emergency of international concern. I have accepted this advice.

LUCY CARTER: WHO director general Dr Margaret Chan says a link between the mosquito-borne zika virus and a surge in babies being born with abnormally small heads and brains was strongly suspected.

MARGARET CHAN: The experts agree that a causal relationship between the zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not yet scientifically proven.

All agree on the urgent need to coordinate international efforts to investigate and understand this relationship better.

LUCY CARTER: Dr Chan says this declaration of zika as a global emergency will help unite experts in the fight against the disease.

MARGARET CHAN: A coordinated international response is needed to improve surveillance, the detection of infections, congenital malformations and neurological complications, to intensify the control of mosquito populations, and to expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect people at risk.

LUCY CARTER: Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne is a senior lecturer in communicable disease epidemiology at Sydney University.

He says it's a positive step from the WHO, which was strongly criticised for its response to the West African ebola outbreak.

GRANT HILL-CAWTHORNE: Part of the criticism post-Ebola was they didn't declare this public health emergency early enough for Ebola, and so it sort of tied people's hands when they were trying to get international aid and that kind of thing.

I think they've done this early, this has been recognised as likely to spread, I mean from modelling figures up to four million people are at risk this year from this virus, so this would be a good move.

LUCY CARTER: He says declaring zika a global emergency gives the WHO important powers.

GRANT HILL-CAWTHORNE: To push faster action and things such as research which is desperately needed for the zika virus but also recommendations that can help stop the spread of disease without interfering with international traffic, given troops as we saw during the ebola crisis to actually clamp down on the disease and also to bring together more experts to try and find out as much about this infection as possible.

LUCY CARTER: Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne says it's likely the Australian Government will be asked to contribute to a global effort led by the WHO against zika.

GRANT HILL-CAWTHORNE: A lot of the efforts will now be on countries like Australia to help South American countries to get on top of this.

I think it would be very prudent, particularly considering that we are likely to see cases in Northern Queensland of this, it would be in Australia's best interest to try and help on the ground where the concentration of cases are greatest.

LUCY CARTER: The Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has been contacted for comment.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Lucy Carter reporting.