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WHO lifts global emergency on Zika: better funded public healthcare needed to curb epidemics

21 November 2016
The WHO's announcement that the spread of the Zika virus is no longer a Public Health Emergency of International Concern is both a welcome development and a cause for apprehension. PSI is strongly of the view that this must not be taken as an excuse by governments to reduce much needed funding and attention prioritisation for building stronger health systems and crisis preparedness.

The Chair of the WHO Emergency Committee, Dr David Heyman rightly noted that “the Zika virus remains a highly significant and long term problem.” At the heart of the problem of increasing outbreaks of epidemics like Zika and Ebola is the poor funding of public healthcare delivery. It is very unfortunate that it takes the declaration of adverse health conditions as public health emergencies to trigger improved funding for health. And these are often inadequate and delayed.

Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of PSI notes that:

“Reducing the incidences and impact of epidemics requires the practical recognition of health as a human right, by governments. This entails placing priority on the funding of public healthcare delivery including improved working conditions for health workers. Public Private Partnerships and the privatisation of health in general have drastically reduced the amount of resources that would have been available for building strong, responsive health systems. Private interests in health are concerned primarily with making profit. But when there are outbreaks of epidemics, they contribute little to arresting the consequent loss of lives and deterioration in wellbeing. Public funds are then sourced to try to remedy situations that would otherwise have not arisen. And health workers have to bear the burden of the emergency response.”

The concern by a number of experts that lifting the international health emergency status of Zika is not timely, could be justifiable. It took the United States’ Congress eight months to pass a bill for funding to fight Zika and study its effects. This amount was too little and almost too late. Zika virus disease and Zika virus congenital infection are nationally notifiable conditions in the country, with 4,225 reported cases, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the Zika emergency period, 61 countries and territories reported continuing mosquito transmission of the virus. Diseases know no borders. Epidemics originating in poor developing countries have spread across the world. This calls for concerted efforts at boosting the crisis preparedness of all countries’ national health systems.

Effective crisis preparedness can be guaranteed only as an integral element of strong public healthcare systems which prioritise: Sufficient public health funding to provide preventative measures and treatment for affected people; Good public prevention systems in order to control mosquitoes and other non-human vectors; Adequate work conditions for health sector workers to combat Zika and other endemic disease, and; The establishment of a participative management task force where government, workers and organized society can decide together on the best ways to combat these and other diseases.

PSI welcomes the reassuring position expressed by the director of the WHO emergencies programm Dr. Peter Salama, that the WHO is “not downgrading the importance” of the Zika virus, even as the public emergency of international concern status of the epidemic is lifted. We also appreciate the fact that, while “Zika is here to stay”, the WHO response as well “is here to stay”.

PSI is committed to stopping Zika and other epidemics in their tracks. This involves tackling the root problem; the neoliberal paradigm of development which puts profit before people and the health of the earth. The struggle for quality public health for all and against climate change is thus very important, to end the alarming rate at which epidemics have been spreading in recent years.

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