Zika No Longer Global 'Health Emergency,' WHO Declares

Nov 18, 2016
Originally published on November 23, 2016 1:33 pm

The World Health Organization announced Friday that it no longer considers the Zika epidemic a public health emergency of international concern.

But Zika's threat to pregnant women and babies is not going away anytime soon, the agency says. Instead, the virus is now a chronic problem, says the WHO's Dr. Pete Salama.

"It is really important that we communicate this very clearly: We are not downgrading the importance of Zika," Salama says. "In fact, by placing this as a longer term program of work, we're sending the message that Zika is here to stay. And WHO's response is here to stay, in a robust manner."

One thing is clear: Zika is still spreading. And microcephaly cases are still growing. Argentina reported its first potential case this week. And Florida continues to find people who caught Zika inside the state.

For these reasons, pregnant women — and their partners — still need to pay attention to where they travel, says Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Regardless of how WHO defines Zika, [the disease] is unprecedented, and it's an extraordinary risk for pregnant women," Frieden says. "That's why it's important that pregnant women not travel to places where Zika is spreading."

Right now, those places include countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, parts of Southeast Asia — and neighborhoods in Miami.

WHO first declared Zika a public health emergency back in February. Back then, the situation looked dire.

Brazil was investigating more than 4,000 cases of microcephaly — a horrible birth defect where babies have brain damage and small heads. And health officials were predicting thousands of more cases, as Zika spread across the Western Hemisphere.

"If this pattern is confirmed beyond Latin America and the Caribbean, the world will face a severe public health crisis," WHO's director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, said in February.

But so far, that pattern hasn't repeated itself. Brazil has confirmed the most Zika-linked microcephaly cases, about 2,100. Other counties in Latin America have reported far fewer. Colombia has the second highest with 57 confirmed cases and the U.S. is third with 31, WHO said Thursday.

Such a vast difference between the situation in Brazil versus other countries has raised some eyebrows. Could some other factor in Brazil be increasing the risk of microcephaly there? Perhaps a pesticide or another virus?

"I think it's too early to draw conclusions," says Alessandro Vespignani, who models the spread of Zika virus at Northeastern University in Boston.

Colombia is still investigating more than 300 microcephaly cases to see if they're linked to Zika. Several countries, such as Venezuela and Haiti, have not been vigilant about reporting cases. And countries that are on top of reporting, such as Mexico and Puerto Rico, aren't expected to have microcephaly cases until next year — it takes around 9 months after a Zika outbreak strikes for the bulk of microcephaly cases to appear.

"We can't rule out the possibility that something unique is happening in Brazil," Vespignani says. "But, right now, we have to wait and see what happens elsewhere."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The World Health Organization said today it no longer considers the Zika epidemic a global public health emergency. But as NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports, WHO says the threat the virus poses to pregnant women and babies is not going away anytime soon.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Back in January, Zika shocked the world. Babies in Brazil were born with extremely small heads, a condition called microcephaly. And it looked like a mosquito-borne virus was the culprit. WHO's director-general Dr. Margaret Chan said this was a first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARGARET CHAN: The possibility that a mosquito bite could be linked to severe fetal malformations alarmed the public and astonished scientists.

DOUCLEFF: As a result, WHO declared a public health emergency. And scientists from all over the world came together to figure out what was happening. They worked fast and quickly showed that Zika can cause severe prenatal brain damage and other birth defects like blindness and deafness.

Now that the link between Zika and microcephaly is better understood, WHO says the response to the epidemic needs to change. It's no longer an emergency situation. Instead, Dr. Pete Salama says, it's clear, Zika is a chronic problem.

PETE SALAMA: It's really important that we communicate this very clearly. We are not downgrading the importance of Zika. In fact, by placing this as a longer-term program of work, we're sending the message that Zika is here to stay. And WHO's response is here to stay in a very robust manner.

DOUCLEFF: In other words, Zika is still spreading. Just this week, Argentina reported its first case of Zika-linked microcephaly. And Florida continues to report cases of Zika being caught inside the state. Dr. Thomas Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pregnant women and their partners still need to pay attention to where they go.

THOMAS FRIEDEN: Regardless of how WHO defines this, Zika is unprecedented. And it's an extraordinary risk for pregnant women. That's why it's important that pregnant women not travel to places where Zika is spreading.

DOUCLEFF: That includes countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, parts of Southeast Asia and neighborhoods in Miami. Frieden says these travel restrictions will likely be the new normal for a while, at least until we have a vaccine, which will likely take a few years. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.