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Experts wary after WHO downgrades Zika threat

Nov 20. 2016
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By Agence France-Presse
The Sunday Nation

Health agency warns epidemic remains a challenge but is no longer an emergency of global concern

The World Health Organisa-tion (WHO) has announced that the Zika virus outbreak, which has been linked to deformities in babies’ heads and brains, no longer poses a world public health emergency – but warned the epidemic remains a challenge.

Brazil, the epicentre of the outbreak, has however refused to downgrade the risk, while experts sharply criticised the world health body’s decision.

“The Zika virus remains a highly significant and long-term problem, but it is not any more a public health emergency of international concern,” World Health Organisation emergency committee chairman Dr David Heymann said.

Meanwhile in Thailand, the Disease Control Department (DCD) has found that religious sites are the main breeding grounds of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that can spread Zika. Its recent survey showed that almost 86 per cent of religious sites were found to have mosquito larvae. 

While Zika causes only mild symptoms in most people, pregnant women with the virus risk giving birth to babies with microcephaly, a condition that leads to abnormally small brains and heads.

It can also cause rare adult-onset neurological problems such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), which can result in paralysis or death.

Since the outbreak in mid-2015, more than 1.5 million people have been infected with Zika, mainly in Brazil, and more than 1,600 babies have been born with microcephaly since last year, according to the WHO. The UN’s global health agency declared the Zika epidemic a global health emergency in February this year.

Researchers earlier this year warned that at least 2.6 billion people, over a third of the global population, live in parts of Africa, Asia and the Pacific where Zika could gain a new foothold, with 1.2 billion at risk in India alone.

Brazil on Friday said it would continue to treat the outbreak as an emergency. “We will maintain the emergency [status] in Brazil until we are completely tranquil about the situation,” Health Minister Ricardo Barros said.

The WHO was careful on Friday not to dismiss the risk still posed by the virus, which has been detected in 73 countries, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“We are not downgrading the importance of Zika. In fact, by placing this as a longer-term programme of work, we’re 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, director of the agency’s health emergencies programme.

There are still, he added, “a lot of unknowns” in the battle against Zika.

The WHO believes the “Zika virus and associated consequences remain a significant enduring public health challenge requiring intense action but no longer represent” a global health emergency, it said in a statement.

“Many aspects of this disease and associated consequences still remain to be understood, but this can best be done through sustained research,” it added. 

Emergency committee head Heymann said Brazil’s decision to continue dealing with the epidemic as an emergency was “appropriate”, even as he affirmed the virus need not be dealt with as an emergency of international concern.

Gobal health and law expert Lawrence Gostin, of Georgetown University in Washington DC, described the WHO decision as “quite worrying”, particularly since the southern hemisphere will soon enter the high-risk summer season for mosquitoes. 

Religious sites a problem

In Thailand, a recent survey by the DCD showed mosquito larvae had been found at 85.71 per cent of religious sites. 

“These larvae are mostly found in largely overlooked stuff that can contain water such as tree pots or unused tyres,” DCD director-general Dr Jedsada Chokdamrongsuk said yesterday. 

He said 63.64 per cent of schools had hosted mosquito breeding grounds. Larvae had also been found in a quarter of hotels and about 18 per cent of factories.

DCD deputy director-general Dr Panumard Yarnwaidsakul said Zika had already become an endemic disease in Thailand with new cases being reported on a daily basis. He said the department is currently monitoring one case of microcephaly.

Public Health Ministry permanent secretary Dr Sopon Mekthon said that in order to fight against such communicable diseases, it was necessary to crack down on mosquito breeding grounds. 

“If we can launch a complete crackdown, we can prevent the spread of not just Zika virus but other [mosquito-borne] diseases such as dengue fever and Chikungunya fever,” he said. 

Sopon said 33 new Zika virus patients were reported during the past week in 12 provinces. 

He said about 80 per cent of Zika-infected people do not know that they have caught the disease because in healthy adults the virus hardly causes any symptoms. 

Thailand has reported more than 680 cases of Zika since January.

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