UN agency lifts Zika emergency, prepares for long-term fight

GENEVA (AP) — Acknowledging Zika is “here to stay,” the United Nations health agency on Friday lifted a 9-month-old emergency declaration and prepared for a longer-term response to the mosquito-borne virus that can result in severe neurological defects in newborns whose mothers were infected.

The World Health Organization was quick to note that the move does not mean the agency is downgrading the threat of the virus that has spread across Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Nearly 30 countries have reported birth defects linked to Zika, with over 2,100 cases of nervous-system malformations reported in Brazil alone.

The officials also emphasized that the now-lifted “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” was declared in February, when Zika clusters were appearing and a sharp increase in research was needed — with the looming Rio Olympics in mind.

WHO said the emergency measures had led the world to an “urgent and coordinated response.” But the virus has continued to spread. The agency acknowledged “many aspects of this disease and associated consequences still remain to be understood, but this can best be done through sustained research.”

“It is a significant and enduring public health challenge, but it no longer represents an emergency,” Dr. David Heymann, who heads the WHO emergency committee on Zika, said after the panel met for the fifth time this year. “There was no downgrading of this.”

Heymann said recommendations made in recent months were now being “internalized” at the Geneva-based agency.

“If anything, this has been escalated in importance by becoming activities that will be continued in the long-term in the World Health Organization,” he said.

Traditionally, WHO’s emergency declarations are designed to motivate governments to take steps to curb epidemics.

“But Zika has traveled quite far by now. It’s not quite clear to me what the impact” of continuing the declaration would be, Stephen Morse, an infectious disease expert at New York City’s Columbia University, said.

Containing the spread of the virus was one reason for the February declaration, Heymann said.

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