WHO de­clares end of Zika emer­gency

Virus re­mains a threat

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

GENEVA: The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion on Fri­day de­clared that Zika no longer con­sti­tutes an in­ter­na­tional emer­gency, but it stressed a need for a long-term ef­fort to ad­dress the virus, which has been linked to birth de­fects and neu­ro­log­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions. Of­fi­cials on WHO’s Emer­gency Com­mit­tee made clear the Zika still con­sti­tutes a global pub­lic health threat. They warned the virus, which has been found in 60 coun­tries since the out­break was iden­ti­fied last year in Brazil, will con­tinue to spread where mos­qui­toes that carry the virus are present.

Re­mov­ing the in­ter­na­tional emer­gency des­ig­na­tion will put Zika in a class with other dis­eases, such as dengue, that pose se­ri­ous risks and re­quire con­tin­ued re­search, in­clud­ing ef­forts to de­velop ef­fec­tive vac­cines. But some pub­lic health ex­perts wor­ried that los­ing the “in­ter­na­tional emer­gency” la­bel could slow re­search into the virus, which con­tin­ues to cause in­fec­tions in the United States and else­where.

WHO in Fe­bru­ary de­clared Zika a pub­lic health emer­gency of in­ter­na­tional con­cern - a des­ig­na­tion un­der in­ter­na­tional law that com­pels coun­tries to re­port out­breaks. The moved was part of an ef­fort to de­ter­mine if Zika was linked to re­ports in Brazil of the se­vere birth de­fect mi­cro­cephaly and the neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­der Guil­lain-Barre Syn­drome. Tra­di­tion­ally, Zika had only been thought to cause mild symp­toms. That goal has been met, said Dr David Hey­mann, chair of the Zika Emer­gency Com­mit­tee and a pro­fes­sor of in­fec­tious dis­ease at the Lon­don School of Hy­giene and Trop­i­cal Medicine, in a con­fer­ence call with re­porters fol­low­ing the com­mit­tee meet­ing in Geneva. Be­cause re­search has now shown that Zika and mi­cro­cephaly are linked, “the com­mit­tee felt that what is best now is a very ro­bust tech­ni­cal re­sponse to the virus, and that would re­quire work within WHO,” he said. The UN health agency main­tained rec­om­men­da­tions in­clud­ing that peo­ple ex­posed to the Zika virus should take pre­ven­tive mea­sures for six months to avoid sex­ual trans­mis­sion. “It re­mains cru­cially im­por­tant that preg­nant women avoid trav­el­ing to ar­eas with lo­cal trans­mis­sion of Zika, be­cause of the dev­as­tat­ing com­pli­ca­tions that can oc­cur in fe­tuses that be­come in­fected dur­ing preg­nancy,” the US Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol (CDC) said in a state­ment.

Some ex­perts, ex­pressed con­cern that los­ing the “in­ter­na­tional emer­gency” des­ig­na­tion might re­sult in less sup­port for re­search into the virus. “I think WHO’s de­ci­sion is un­wise,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law ex­pert from Ge­orge­town University.

“Al­though Zika’s spread has waned, it still holds the po­ten­tial for an ex­plo­sive epidemic. If it were to reemerge in the Amer­i­cas or jump to an­other part of the world, it would sig­nif­i­cantly threaten a new gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren born with dis­abil­i­ties such as mi­cro­cephaly.” Gostin said the in­ter­na­tional re­sponse to Zika has been “lethar­gic” and WHO’s de­ci­sion will give coun­tries even less rea­son to in­vest in pre­pared­ness and re­search.

At the press con­fer­ence, Dr Peter Salama, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of WHO’s Health Emer­gen­cies Pro­gram, in­sisted that WHO is “not down­grad­ing the im­por­tance of Zika.” By fram­ing Zika as a longer pro­gram of work, Salama said, “we are send­ing the mes­sage that Zika is here to stay and WHO’s re­sponse is here to stay in a very ro­bust man­ner.” Dr Amesh Adalja, an in­fec­tious dis­eases ex­pert at the University of Pittsburgh Med­i­cal Cen­ter, said pub­lic health emer­gency dec­la­ra­tions help di­rect the world’s at­ten­tion to a dis­ease, and the Zika emer­gency des­ig­na­tion ac­com­plished that goal. But much work re­mains to be done, in­clud­ing the de­vel­op­ment of a vac­cine, he added. The re­moval of the emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion “doesn’t change that fact.”

Brazil hard hit

There have been some 2,300 con­firmed cases world­wide of ba­bies born with mi­cro­cephaly, most in Brazil, but the fig­ure is most likely a “sig­nif­i­cant un­der-es­ti­mate”, Salama said. Hey­mann said the Brazil­ian gov­ern­ment is con­duct­ing stud­ies to look for ad­di­tional fac­tors that could ex­plain the high num­ber of cases there, par­tic­u­larly in the north­east­ern part of the coun­try, but so far those stud­ies have turned up noth­ing. Salama said 28 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries have now re­ported mi­cro­cephaly and 19 coun­tries have re­ported Guil­lain-Barre Syn­drome. He said it is “very likely we will see many re­ports of mi­cro­cephaly, in­clud­ing coun­tries in Latin Amer­ica such as Gu­atemala and Colom­bia.” The US CDC said WHO’s an­nounce­ment does not change the ur­gent need to bet­ter un­der­stand Zika’s im­pact on fe­tuses and in­fants, to de­velop bet­ter di­ag­nos­tics and to make vac­cines that can prevent in­fec­tion and spread of dis­ease.

— AP

PERNAMBUCO: An­gel­ica Pereira (left) watches as her 1-year-old daugh­ter Luiza (dis­abled by the Zika virus) goes through a phys­i­cal ther­apy ses­sion at the UPAE hos­pi­tal in Caru­aru, Pernambuco state, Brazil.

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