Nine months after announcing the Zika epidemic an international emergency, the World Health Organization has lifted the declaration. This means that the disease, which has been linked to various neurological and developmental conditions such as microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, is no longer considered an emergency.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the threat of Zika has diminished. On the contrary, this latest announcement is effectively an acknowledgement that this virus is in fact here to stay. Women and children in Brazil are still being infected, and the threat of the disease spreading, particularly throughout North America, remains. However, the declaration means that there will now be a change in how the United Nations deals with the situation, shifting toward more long-term management strategies.
While the virus was identified almost 70 years ago, it was only last year when “an extraordinary cluster of microcephaly and other neurological disorders [were] reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia.” This is when the World Health Organization realized that the disease had become a major public health issue and declared an international emergency. Since then, the virus has been reported in almost 30 countries worldwide, and there have been at least 2,100 cases of neurological malformations in Brazil alone.
Initially, the link between the Zika virus, which is spread through the bite of an infected Aedes species of mosquito, and microcephaly was just anecdotal. But considering the unusual cluster of cases in Brazil and the discovery of a similar pattern in French Polynesia beforehand, scientists began to build up a picture of how the virus leads to this condition. Eventually, the CDC announced that there was enough evidence to confirm the link. It is now thought that the virus has further impacts, including being linked to another neurological condition, Guillain-Barré syndrome.
There have been intense efforts to develop a vaccine due to the dramatic conditions associated with the virus, its ability to remain in the body for extended periods of time, and evidence suggesting that it can be spread sexually. These efforts will continue, as the head of the WHO emergency committee Dr David Heymann said that the virus continues to pose a “significant and enduring” threat.
Efforts will continue to try and prevent, or at least limit, the continued spread of Zika throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and further afield.