The World Health Organization said Friday that the Zika virus no longer posed a world public health emergency, but it stressed the need for a long-term response to the mosquito-borne disease.
“The Zika virus remains a highly significant and long-term problem, but it is not anymore a public health emergency of international concern,” the U.N. health agency’s emergency committee said.
Brazil, which has seen the worst of the Zika crisis, said Friday that it would maintain its emergency status.
While the Zika virus causes only mild symptoms in most people, pregnant women who become infected are at risk of giving birth to babies with microcephaly, a condition characterized by an abnormally small head and possibly improper brain development.
More than 2,000 babies have been born with microcephaly since last year, most of them in Brazil.
The WHO originally declared the Zika epidemic a global health emergency in February 2016, and the outbreak sparked fears of infection among travelers to this summer’s Olympic Games in Brazil.
The WHO acknowledged Friday that “many aspects of this disease and its associated consequences still remain to be understood” but said “this can best be done through sustained research.”
“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 WHO’s response is here to stay in a very robust manner,” said Dr. Peter Salama, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that 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 fetuses that become infected during pregnancy.”
The disease is mainly spread by mosquitoes, but can also be spread through sexual contact. It has spread to more than 60 countries and territories since the current outbreak began in Brazil last year.
In addition to microcephaly, the Zika virus can also cause rare adult-onset neurological problems such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.