What does WHO’s Zika Announcement Mean for Future Policy?

On Nov. 18, the World Health Organization released a statement declaring that its officials no longer consider Zika virus to be a public health emergency. Prior to the announcement, Zika virus was classified as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which garnered intense, short-term commitments to funding, research, and other resources.

According to WHO, the virus was reclassified after research this year showed a causal relationship between Zika and microcephaly. This finding, the report said, meant that a “robust longer-term technical mechanism was now required to manage the global response.”

What will such a global response look like?

First, lobbying for abortion and contraceptive access in the Caribbean, South America, and in the Southern United States will intensify. An analysis published today by the Guttmacher Institute bears proof of this, stating that “ideologically and religiously rooted hostility” to abortion and contraception in these areas leaves women without sufficient choices. The report argues that laws within these regions must be changed in light of Zika, which can result in congenital Zika syndrome (CZS), whose symptoms can include microcephaly.

However, lobbying for other kinds of maternal support will grow, too. This is critical for two reasons, abortion ethics aside. First, scientists are finding that CZS affects a much smaller percentage of babies whose mothers were affected by Zika than was previously estimated. Promoting abortion as the only solution to Zika, therefore, is ignorant of a broader array of needs. Second, of the small percentage of women who do become pregnant and give birth to babies affected by CZS, a large portion is financially unstable.

Thus, policies geared toward women (pregnant or not) from poor socioeconomic backgrounds are warranted. These might include subsidized medical care for babies affected by CZS, as proposed by sociologist Barbara Altman; safer housing for women at risk for infection, and even improved adoption processes. In addition to aligning more closely with regions’ religious and cultural values, these solutions would be more sustainable and more beneficial to the wider communities—not just individuals affected by Zika.

Obviously, funding will continue to flow in response to the announcement and the lobbying it has inspired. However, the destinations of Zika money are up for debate. To date, a large portion has gone toward spraying for mosquitos (the state of Florida has spent close to $35 million on this alone) and developing a vaccine for Zika. Currently, pharmaceutical companies and government labs all over the world are racing to develop such a vaccine. Perhaps with firmer lobbying for the health and well being of those affected directly by Zika—women, babies, and their communities—more will be allocated to this end.