WHO: Zika no longer public health emergency
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Zika virus no longer represents a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
It was explained that the WHO’s Emergency Committee originally recommended a PHEIC in February 2016 on the basis of an extraordinary cluster of microcephaly and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia and geographic and temporal association with Zika virus infection. The WHO said that these outbreaks “required urgent and co-ordinated and research”.
Zika is caused by a virus transmitted primarily by the Aedes mosquitoes. People suffering from Zika have reported symptoms including mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise or headache. These symptoms typically last between two and seven days.
More seriously, however, is the effect the virus can have on unborn babies of infected mothers. According to the WHO, there is a scientific consensus that the Zika virus is a cause of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Links to other neurological complications are also being investigated.
Microcephaly is characterised by an abnormally small head in newborns, the result of an underdeveloped brain. It is a severe birth defect, and has been seen in significant numbers in Brazil, where the initial Zika outbreak was located.
According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare and serious condition of the peripheral nervous system. Symptoms usually start in the feet and hands of the sufferer before spreading to their arms and then legs. It may start with tingling or numbness, progressing to muscle weakness and co-ordination problems and unsteadiness.
The committee has now said that because research has since demonstrated the link between Zika infection and microcephaly in newborn babies, it felt that a “robust longer-term technical mechanism was now required to manage the global response”.
As a result, according to the committee, it felt that the Zika virus and associated consequences remain a significant enduring public health challenge requiring intense action but no longer represent a PHEIC.
The latest Zika situation report by the WHO - issued on November 17th - revealed that no countries or territories had reported new instances of mosquito-borne Zika virus infections for the first time in the week prior to the publication of the report.
It was also reported that no countries or territories had recorded any new cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) associated with Zika virus infection for the first time in the week prior.
However, both Argentina and Guadeloupe saw new cases of microcephaly and other central nervous system (CNS) malformations potentially associated with Zika virus infection for the first time in the week before the report was published.
This means that although a decline in cases of Zika infection has been reported in some countries and territories, vigilance needs to remain high.
Zika remains a threat to the health of people around the world. Dr Peter Salama, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies programme, told reporters that the WHO was “not downgrading the importance of Zika”.
He added: “By placing it as a longer-term programme of work, we are saying Zika is here to stay and [the] WHO’s response is here to stay.”
There are factors about Zika that scientists and clinicians cannot explain, so it becomes even more important that people do what they can to keep themselves protected.
Although steps have been taken towards the development of a Zika vaccine, it is not currently available so people must take prevention into their own hands. People in affected areas are encouraged to wear mosquito repellent, wear clothes that cover the skin and to use barrier protection during sex.
Pregnant women are still advised not to travel to areas with active Zika transmission in order to avoid contracting the virus and potentially causing birth defects in their unborn children.