Earlier today, the World Health Organization declared that the Zika virus, along with its related neurological complications, no longer constitutes an international emergency. The announcement is a troubling development that could threaten important research, while also undermining those who are most affected, namely women, children, and the poor.
Zika is no longer an international Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a designation assigned to the virus this past February. “We are not downgrading the importance of Zika,” noted Peter Salama, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, at a press conference held earlier today. “We are sending the message that Zika is here to stay and the WHO response is here to stay.” The health organization said Zika and its “associated consequences” remain a serious health challenge requiring “intense action,” but not deserving of PHEIC status.
The WHO made its decision after an advisory committee concluded that Zika is just like any other dangerous mosquito-borne disease, such as malaria, yellow fever, and chikungunya, so it doesn’t warrant special treatment. The ongoing Zika epidemic, claims the WHO, is no longer an exceptional situation.
Except that Zika is exceptional. It is qualitatively different than other diseases in several respects. It affects babies, and by consequence, their mothers. And because Zika is a tropical disease, it also affects populations in the developing world. Scientists still have much to learn about the virus, including how it spreads and whether the epidemic could become even worse. In a word, the WHO’s decision was premature.
Indeed, women are usually the ones who have to carry the burden of this dreaded virus, particularly in countries like Brazil where “machismo” culture still rules. In Brazil’s poor northeast, for example, where 80 percent of cases were concentrated earlier this year, scores of women were abandoned by their partners. Many of these women are from low-income families; they can’t afford to go back to work while also taking care of a child with a severe developmental disorder and physical disabilities.