Zika emergency downgraded, vigilance on emergency funding begins

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | November 23, 2016

NEW YORK, November 26 (C-Fam) The World Health Organization (WHO) announced the end of the Zika emergency and shift to a long-term response to the virus on Friday. The US Congress approved billions of dollars to respond to the emergency in late September after nearly a year-long battle over abortion. Abortion advocacy groups that were quick to seize upon the tragedy when it was announced have remained largely silent on the WHO’s latest announcement.

Spokespeople for the WHO explained that the emergency label was no longer needed since a link has been established between the Zika virus and related mental and physical harms, particularly to pregnant women and their children.  Since the virus cannot be easily contained or eradicated, it joins other pathogens like HIV and dengue, which require long-term strategies to study the threat, treat the symptoms, and try to reduce transmission.

Some experts view the WHO announcement as premature, particularly since summer—and increased mosquito activity—are just arriving in some of the hardest-hit areas.  Others caution against seeing the announcement as a declaration of victory instead of an acknowledgment that “the microbes have won again,” as Laurie Garrett writes at Scientific American.

One positive effect of the downgraded emergency is that cooler heads may prevail over some of the alarmism that characterized recent months, fueled by abortion and family planning groups focused more on promoting their specific solutions than a more holistic approach to the Zika problem.  Urging women not to have babies in Zika-affected areas is not a long-term solution, and contraceptive use is already high in Latin America; Brazil and Colombia each have contraceptive prevalence approaching 80% according to the UN’s 2015 figures.

Nevertheless, just four days before the WHO announcement, the Guardian published an article accusing global health agencies of failing “to challenge political and religious resistance to contraception” in Latin America, “leading to a humanitarian crisis for women.”

The Guardian article made several post-truth claims: it asserted that “in Haiti, only 34% of women have access to contraception,” when in fact that figure measures modern contraceptive use, not women’s ability to access it.  Also, it quotes a representative from the pro-abortion group Ipas saying that almost 90% of pregnancies in El Salvador are unplanned, when a 2012 World Bank report on El Salvador claimed a more plausible 56.2%.

In late September, the U.S. Congress approved a bill authorizing over $1 billion in funding for Zika response, after a long and contentious battle over the proposed inclusion of funding for Planned Parenthood and its affiliates.  While the outright ban on funding for Planned Parenthood was ultimately dropped, the bill did not directly fund the organization or its partners, and distributed funding to accounts and agencies that were seen as least likely to partner with Planned Parenthood in the future.  While continued oversight is needed, a longstanding safeguard is in place: no U.S. funding can go toward overseas abortions, due to the Helms Amendment.

Like much of the Zika-oriented funding so far, the U.S. provision is an emergency response measure, not an ongoing budget line item.  The WHO is urging donors to treat Zika as a long-term problem requiring sustainable financing – vigilance will be required to ensure that renewed efforts are targeted at the real threat: viruses and mosquitoes, not vulnerable children.