UN agnecy lifts Zika emergency, prepares for long-term fight

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.

Brazil said Friday that it will continue to treat the Zika outbreak as an emergency, even as the World Health Organization considers whether to downgrade it from crisis status. "In fact by placing this as a longer programme of work, we are sending the message that Zika is here to stay and WHO's response is here to stay in a very robust manner", said Dr. Peter Salama, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Programme.

The WHO's Emergency Committee, which declared a public health emergency of global concern (PHEIC) in February, said the virus is still a long-term problem.

Heymann, a longtime former World Health Organization official who now teaches infectious diseases epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, admitted the committee was concerned that lifting the emergency would lower the priority given to Zika by governments and other funders. Of the 27 other countries that have reported cases of Zika-related birth defects, Colombia has recorded the second highest tally, 57. But a long list of questions remain unanswered: Scientists don't know how often the disease causes severe complications, nor do they know whether certain cofactors, such as other viruses, genetic factors, or environmental factors might be playing a role.

In a move that might seem confusing to outsiders, WHO Zika panel chair David Heymann said removing the worldwide warning meant that "if anything, [Zika has] escalated in importance".

Gostin said the global response to Zika has been "lethargic" and WHO's decision will give countries even less reason to invest in preparedness and research.

"That is a recipe for the very lack of preparedness the world has seen time and again with infectious diseases". In April, the World Health Organization said the virus definitely causes microcephaly in babies and Guillain-Barré Syndrome in adults. About 3,500 of those cases are in pregnant women. "This disease is like all endemic diseases that have a seasonal appearance", Heymann said. The Florida health department reported four more locally acquired cases Friday, as well as more brought in by travelers from other affected areas.

These include microcephaly, where babies are born with abnormally small heads and restricted brain development.

Zika can also be sexually transmitted.

  • Aubrey Nash