(CN) – The World Health Organization said Friday that it no longer considers the Zika virus a global health emergency.
But the organization promised to take a more sustained focus on the epidemic, amid concerns that the organization was underrating the ongoing danger posed by the mosquito-borne virus.
“This represents an escalation into a major activity within WHO,” David Heymann, chair of the WHO panel that recommend labeling Zika an international emergency this past February, said at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
After initially breaking out in Brazil in 2015, Zika has spread to more than 50 nations and been connected to a variety of health issues. Thousands of babies have suffered deformities as a result of infection, including microcephaly – a congenital disorder that results in children having abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.
“We are not downgrading the importance of Zika,” said Peter Salama, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program. “We are sending the message that Zika is here to stay and the WHO response is here to stay.”
Salama added that Zika is seasonal and will return, and nations must now view it as an endemic disease and adjust accordingly.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the WHO’s decision was premature as summer is beginning in the southern hemisphere, where the current epidemic began. The virus is most active during summer.
“Are we going to see a resurgence in Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere?” he asked. “If they pull back on the emergency, they’d better be able to reinstate it. Why not wait a couple of months to see what happens?”
Fauci also promised that his institute will not slow down its efforts, which include funding efforts to find a vaccine against Zika and research into the connection between the virus and a variety of health conditions.
“The decisions we make about developing a vaccine or not are unrelated to what the WHO says,” he said.