November 17, 2016

Is Zika still a public health emergency?

Written by Helen Branswell, Infectious Diseases and Public Health Reporter, STAT News (@HelenBranswell)

This post originally appeared on STAT News here.

On Nov. 20, 2015, the World Health Organization warned the spread of Zika virus in Brazil might be responsible for a surge in the birth of babies born with tiny heads and underdeveloped brains.

On Friday, almost a year to the day from that first warning, experts who advise the UN’s global health agency on Zika will grapple with the question of whether this most unusual of outbreaks still constitutes a crisis.

It won’t come as a huge surprise to the global health community if the experts tell WHO Director-General Margaret Chan that Zika, while still alarming, no longer meets the criteria for a “public health emergency of international concern,” as its known in the agency’s vernacular.

But some observers worry that if the WHO downgrades Zika’s status, an outbreak that continues to bedevil scientists and threaten the health of developing fetuses will slip further down the priority list for research funding. They are also concerned that efforts to detect and report spread around the world will ease.

“The international response to Zika has been lethargic, and if WHO called off the global emergency it would provide reason for governments and donors to pull back even more,” said Dr. Lawrence Gostin, an international health law expert at Georgetown University.

“That would be a recipe for the very lack of preparedness the world has seen time and again with infectious diseases.”

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