- World Health Organization declared Zika a global emergency in February
- It meant members states were somewhat obliged to follow their advice
- But the agency changed its categorization in a statement on Friday
- Now states will be free to decide how they fund, research, handle Zika
- Critics warn this could hamper progress for treatment and research
- Florida continues to report new local cases in its outbreak zone
Zika is no longer a public health emergency, the World Health Organization has proclaimed.
The mosquito-borne virus sparked global panic this year after millions were infected, causing scores of babies to be born with birth defects such as microcephaly.
New infections are still being reported in Florida, home to the only outbreak zone in mainland America, and Floridians are urging the government for funding to fight it.
However, on Friday global health officials released a report to say Zika is no longer as dangerous as once feared.
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The mosquito-borne virus sparked global panic this year after millions were infected, causing scores of babies to be born with birth defects such as microcephaly
In a statement, the WHO explained: ‘Many aspects of this disease and associated consequences still remain to be understood, but this can best be done through sustained research.’
Dr Peter Salama, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, insisted the threat is not over, and we should not underestimate Zika.
But it no longer meets the requirements to be deemed an ’emergency’.
‘We are not downgrading the importance of Zika,’ said Dr Salama.
‘Zika is here to stay, and the WHO’s response is here to stay.’
The WHO first declared Zika a public health crisis in February.
It meant member states were somewhat obliged to follow global orders on how to handle the situation.
Now, however, states can more freely explore treatment, research, and control measures.
Some fear this will hamper progress being made in vaccine-development, particularly funding.
Nearly 30 countries have reported birth defects linked to Zika, with over 2,100 cases of nervous-system malformations reported in Brazil alone.
The officials also emphasized that the now-lifted ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ was declared in February, when Zika clusters were appearing and a sharp increase in research was needed – with the looming Rio Olympics in mind.
WHO said the emergency measures had led the world to an ‘urgent and coordinated response.’ But the virus has continued to spread.
The agency acknowledged ‘many aspects of this disease and associated consequences still remain to be understood, but this can best be done through sustained research.’
‘It is a significant and enduring public health challenge, but it no longer represents an emergency,’ Dr. David Heymann, who heads the WHO emergency committee on Zika, said after the panel met for the fifth time this year. ‘There was no downgrading of this.’
Heymann said recommendations made in recent months were now being ‘internalized’ at the Geneva-based agency.
‘If anything, this has been escalated in importance by becoming activities that will be continued in the long-term in the World Health Organization,’ he said.
Containing the spread of the virus was one reason for the February declaration, Heymann said. But its real purpose was to stimulate more study on the alarming link between Zika and devastating birth defects.
Zika, which first was observed as a more minor health threat in 1947, is mainly spread by mosquitoes, but also can be spread through sex. Most infected people don’t get sick. It can cause a mild illness, with fever, rash and joint pain.
But the recent outbreak shows it can also cause microcephaly, or abnormally small heads, and brain damage in newborn children whose mothers were infected, leading to severe developmental problems and sowing grave concerns of would-be parents in countries hit by the virus.
Zika has been linked as well to a temporary paralysis condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Since the last emergency committee meeting on September 1, two countries in southeast Asia and six other countries have reported microcephaly potentially linked to Zika virus, WHO said.
Responding to the WHO announcement, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control called the move ‘technical’ and reiterated its position that pregnant women should avoid traveling to areas with local transmission of Zika.
The WHO’s decision is understandable, given that the pace of new Zika infections has dropped off considerably in recent months, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease chief for the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
But he also noted that Brazil – which for a long time was the focus of the international epidemic – is heading into its hottest months, when mosquito activity peaks. And it’s possible that the outbreak could re-intensify, he said.
‘I’m not going to agree or disagree’ with the WHO decision, Fauci said. ‘But if we have another resurgence as we enter into the summer months in the southern hemisphere, they should be ready to re-install it.’