The World Health Organization (WHO) declared on Friday that the Zika virus and related neurological complications no longer constitute an international emergency but said it would continue to work on the outbreak through a “robust” program.
The WHO’s Emergency Committee, which declared an international public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) in February, said the virus still represents “a highly significant and a long-term problem”.
“The Zika virus and associated consequences remain a significant enduring public health challenge requiring intense action but no longer represent a PHEIC,” the WHO panel composed of independent experts said in a statement after meeting.
Carried by mosquitoes, the Zika virus can cause the rare birth defect microcephaly and other neurological disorders in infants and adults. It has spread to more than 60 countries and territories since the current outbreak was identified last year in Brazil.
“The Committee agreed that Zika must now be managed within the World Health Organization as are other very important infectious diseases and other threats,” Dr. David Heymann, chair of the Zika Emergency Committee, told a news conference.
WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan accepted the committee’s recommendations and declared an end to the emergency. But the U.N. 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said in a statement.
“We are not downgrading the importance of Zika. In fact by placing this as a longer program 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.
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”, he said.
(additional reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Catherine Evans)
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