On November 18, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the Zika virus was no longer a public ‘health emergency’ of international concern, however, it did note that the mosquito-borne virus is still dangerous, and poses a serious health threat.
The fact that Zika is no longer an international emergency, but still poses a threat, could be considered a more frightening fate in its own right, as it outlines that virus is here to stay.
According to the Scientific American, this downgrading of Zika sees the disease fall in among a pantheon of other diseases that affect the world, and disproportionately affects those countries recognised as emerging markets.
In an article, titled ‘The Microbes Have Won Again’, the Scientific American reports that despite the WHOs decision to downgrade Zika’s status, “there is no treatment, cure, reliable in utero diagnostic, or vaccine for the virus at this time”.
Since 2007, 75 different counties have been impacted by Zika, with horrific, often deadly outcomes, and more prominently birth defects and brain damage, known as microcephaly – “a condition caused by the virus attacking brain cells and leading to small heads and brain damage in babies”.
In a press conference, announcing plans to downgrade the virus, the WHO said it has been the “most complicated health emergency” it had ever faced.
“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 foetuses that become infected during pregnancy,” the US Centres 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 the WHO’s response is here to stay in a very robust manner,” said Dr Peter Salama, the executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.
Originally identified in Uganda in 1947, the Zika virus has since spread across Africa and also into South East Asia. Zika virus disease, much like yellow fever, affects one in five people and presents symptoms such as fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis, or redness around the eyes. However, 80 per cent of those infected show no symptoms, making it rather difficult for pregnant women to know if they are infected or not.
Transmitted by the mosquito, Aedes albopictus, the Zika virus has been linked to thousands of birth defects in Brazil, throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, among other places.
To date, there have been over 2,300 reported cases worldwide of babies born with microcephaly, however, Dr Salama suggests this is a “significant underestimate”.