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A baby born in Brazil with microcephaly.

A baby born in Brazil with microcephaly.

Sumaia Villela/Agência Brasil/Wikimedia

WHO ends Zika designation as international public health emergency

Zika virus and its complications—including birth defects and temporary paralysis—are not going away any time soon, the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, said today. Because the disease requires a long-term approach, it has decided to end its declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). The move is not a demotion of the disease, Pete Salama, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, told a press conference. “We are not downgrading the importance of Zika. By placing it as a longer-term program of work, we are saying Zika is here to stay and WHO’s response is here to stay.”

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan declared in February that the cluster of babies born with unusually small heads, a condition called microcephaly, associated with an outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil should be declared a public health emergency. That PHEIC declaration allowed WHO and its partners to take quick action to better understand the connection between the virus and the observed increase in severe birth defects. Since then, researchers have concluded that the virus can indeed trigger a range of birth defects as well as neurological complications in adult patients. But a long list of questions remain unanswered: Scientists don’t know how often the disease causes severe complications, nor do they know whether certain cofactors, such as other viruses, genetic factors, or environmental factors might be playing a role. Other questions remain about how the disease spreads, both via mosquitoes and directly from one person to another.

The disease will continue to spread in regions where its mosquito vector lives, David Heymann, chair of the Zika Emergency Committee, told the press conference. The outstanding questions require long-term, coordinated research, which WHO and its partners can do better by forming a technical advisory group to coordinate the international response, Heymann said. Zika “must now be managed within WHO as are other infectious diseases.”