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

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared an end to the Zika emergency, but warns the mosquito-borne virus still poses an enduring threat.

The Times quoted a W.H.O. executive as saying, "We are not downgrading the importance of Zika".

The WHO labeled Zika an worldwide emergency in February primarily to understand what was causing the "extraordinary clustering" of microcephaly cases in Brazil, the epicenter of the outbreak, said David Heymann, who chairs the expert panel that made the recommendation.

The decision comes nine months after the United Nations agency first declared an emergency over Zika and its associated complications.

Studies have since established the link between Zika and microcephaly.

"The EC [Emergency Committee] felt that Zika virus and associated consequences remain a significant enduring public health challenge requiring intense action but no longer represent a PHEIC [Public Health Emergency of International Concern] as defined under the IHR [International Health Regulations]", WHO officials said in a statement Friday. That will allow for a more sustained focus, with more dedicated resources and expertise, he added. "WHO's decision will give countries even less reason to invest in critically important preparedness and research".

The WHO's designation of a public health emergency was made on February 1. "And WHO's response is here to stay, in a robust manner".

Lawrence Gostin, a global health and law expert at Georgetown University, calls the move "quite worrying".

"Although Zika's spread has waned, it still holds the potential for an explosive epidemic". The organization says the virus is no longer an "exceptional" emergency with "potentially global" reach. Zika "must now be managed within World Health Organization as are other infectious diseases". About 3,500 of those cases are in pregnant women. In most countries, the cases are in the single digits. There is still much to learn about the disease.

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

The world's Zika emergency, is officially over, at least for now. "This disease is like all endemic diseases that have a seasonal appearance", Heymann said. Instead, the virus is now a chronic problem, says the WHO's Dr. Pete Salama. And microcephaly cases are still growing. World Health Organization officials claim more than 2,100 cases of nervous-system malformations have been reported in Brazil alone. But the actual number of affected births has fallen far short of expectations.

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