How the press coverage of the WHO Zika designation change hurt us

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On November 18, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that Zika will no longer be classified as a public health emergency, while maintaining that the epidemic remains “a highly significant and long-term problem,” and emphasizing that this change in designation did not represent a downgrade, but rather an escalation in its long-term importance.

Most major news outlets rushed to report the news, with headlines focusing on the end of the emergency designation.  What was not emphasized by many was the second part of the statement.  In an era where articles inundate social media newsfeeds, and many don’t even click to read content before sharing or retweeting, headlines matter.

Consequently, the impression that the WHO announcement made, even amongst many physicians, is that Zika is not as big of a threat as it was once perceived.  The timing of this misperception is particularly troubling, as the Southern hemisphere is heading into the muggy summer season, bringing with it the resurgence of Zika carrying mosquitos. As Zika continues to spread and research is still identifying potential additional harmful effects of the virus, if anything, our alert level should be higher.

Public health threats such as Zika and Ebola can’t remain emergencies forever, and unfortunately, they also don’t retain their sex appeal forever.  In some ways, coverage of the WHO announcement felt like a goodbye from the press, who now has their hands full with stories about the incoming administration.   The danger of this is that Zika, like Ebola, may slowly fade into oblivion in the minds of the public.  But Ebola is still a real threat, as is Zika.

Every so often, infectious disease gets the spotlight, provoked by dramatic cases such as rapidly progressing, hemorrhage inducing, Ebola or Zika associated microcephaly.  Millions cancel travel plans, and politicians, the public, and the media come together over these perceived threats to humanity to advocate for a forced allocation of resources and funds to create a vaccine and address the issue at hand.  On September 28, 2016, over seven months after President Obama requested $1.9 billion in February, Congress finally agreed to fund $1.1 billion towards fighting the spread and effects of Zika.  In the meantime, millions of dollars of Ebola funding was reappropriated to Zika.  This funding is unlikely to be replenished.

Is this spotlight well-deserved?  Absolutely.  But it’s also arguably too little, and too late.

Whether we are hearing about them or not, emerging pathogens are a constant threat.  Recently, a study released in the scientific journal Cell garnered national publicity with its findings that a simple single mutation in the Ebola virus was responsible for the 2014 outbreak.  Yes, it is this easy.

How about other pathogens that the CDC and WHO are tracking?  Marburg, Rift Valley fever, Monkeypox, and Candida auris are just a few that come to mind.  These are permanent threats to global health which require constant attention.  After all, they may also be a single mutation away from resulting in the next big outbreak.

When outbreaks occur, the costs are devastating.  According to the CDC, over $3.6 billion dollars was spent to fight Ebola, with $2.2 billion in GDP lost in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.  This doesn’t include the human effects of 28,639 (reported) cases, which are now estimated to be much higher according to a study published this month, and the 11,316 deaths.  It also doesn’t account for reduction in access to healthcare services because of Ebola, which resulted in an estimated additional 10,600 deaths from HIV, TB, and malaria, and ignores the longstanding effects of an 8% reduction in the healthcare workforce, more than 33 weeks of school closures, the 17,300 children who lost parents to Ebola, and the 30% decline in childhood vaccination in the countries hardest hit by Ebola.

Surely, if funds are diverted to prevention and control practices prospectively, rather than from a reactionary stance, some of these outbreaks could be prevented, repaying the investment in the process.  Although funding preventative science lacks the buzz factor that ‘emergencies’ have, for the sake of public health, the press has a responsibility to echo these sentiments when reporting announcements such as that of the WHO.

Perhaps a better headline would have been, “Zika is here to stay.”  And if we’re being ambitious, an embedded “Donate now” link would have been great.

Nisha Mehta is a radiologist and founder, Deserved Splurges.  She can be reached on Twitter @nishamehtamd and on Facebook.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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