Israel’s Magen David Adom medical rescue service, which handles the country’s blood donations, is implementing new guidelines for would-be donors who have recently visited South American nations hit by the Zika virus.
The announcement comes in the same week in which the World Health Organization said that a surge in serious birth defects in South America was “strongly suspected” of being caused by Zika, and constituted a global health emergency.
Israel will now insist that would-be blood donors wait 28 days after their return from South American countries deemed to be affected by the Zika virus, the Maariv news website said Friday.
The Health Ministry said that it is monitoring the situation and responding in accordance with recommendations from medical experts, Maariv reported.
“The public health services are holding discussions on Zika with professionals in various fields — epidemiology, gynecology, specialists in fetal medicine, infectious disease specialists, pediatricians, bloods bank and laboratories — in order to formulate detailed guidelines for the treatment of people returning from countries hit by the Zika endemic,” the ministry said in a statement. “We will again update public health services in the coming days, and issue fresh guidelines for the public.”
The UN health body said Monday that a surge in cases of microcephaly — a devastating condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain — was likely caused by the mosquito-borne virus and declared the situation a “public health emergency of international concern.”
WHO chief Margaret Chan said a meeting of health experts who make up the agency’s emergency committee had agreed “a causal relationship between the Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly is strongly suspected, though not scientifically proven.”
“The clusters of microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world,” she said.
The WHO is under pressure to move swiftly to tackle Zika, after admitting it was slow to respond to the recent Ebola outbreak that ravaged parts of west Africa.
It warned last week that the mosquito-borne virus was “spreading explosively” in the Americas, and said the region could see up to four million Zika cases this year alone.
For decades after Zika was first discovered in Uganda in 1947 the mosquito-borne virus was of little concern, sporadically causing “mild” illness in human populations.
But although the symptoms of the virus have until now appeared benign, growing indications of a link to microcephaly and a rare neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome have stirred growing alarm.
“Zika alone would not be a public health emergency of international concern,” explained David Heymann, who chaired Monday’s WHO emergency committee meeting.
He stressed the urgent need to scientifically establish whether the clusters of microcephaly and Guillain Barre are caused by Zika, but acknowledged that “it will take time.”
In the meantime, Chan said, the world could not put off coordinating measures to protect against the spread of Zika, in the affected region and beyond.