WHO declares Zika virus as a public health emergency of international concern

Health: The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Zika virus as a public health emergency of international concern following the recent cases of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in the Americas region.

WHO South-East Asia’s regional director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh urged countries in the region, including Bhutan to strengthen surveillance and take preventive measures against the Zika virus disease.

As recommended by the WHO, the health ministry in Bhutan has intensified the existing vector borne disease control programmes in the malaria prone areas in the southern belt.

Public health department’s director Dr Pandup Tshering said the focus would be on prevention of mosquito through the existing activities.

“We would focus more on prevention of mosquitoes and surveillance measures,” Dr Pandup Tshering said. “We’ll be observing the situation closely.”

Despite sporadic cases reported in Australia and Thailand, as stated in media reports, Dr Pandup Tshering said Bhutan should not worry unless it becomes epidemic in the neighbouring countries.

“People who have travelled to the affected countries should report to the nearest health centre if they have fever and rash,” Dr Pandup Tshering said. “We already have a system in place to detect vector borne diseases.”

Health officials said that tests to confirm the suspected virus infections would be sent to WHO identified laboratories in Thailand (AFRIMS) and India (NIV-Pune).

As of now, there is no travel restriction to the affected countries or screening of passengers at the airport.

The media statement issued by WHO states that the Zika virus is of concern in the WHO South-East Asia Region as the Aedes aegyptii mosquito, responsible for its spread, is found in many areas and there is no evidence of immunity to the Zika virus in many populations of the region.

In the past sporadic Zika virus cases were reported from Thailand and Maldives, which is why Asia should be worried too.

Zika virus is transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes. It causes mild fever and rash. Other symptoms include muscle pain, joint pain, headache, pain behind the eyes and conjunctivitis.

There is no cure for Zika virus disease yet and treatment is focused on relieving the symptoms. The disease has similar clinical signs to dengue and may be misdiagnosed in areas where dengue is common.

The virus was first isolated from a rhesus monkey in Zika forest, Uganda in 1947, in mosquitoes in the same forest in 1948, and in humans in Nigeria in 1954.

WHO recommended countries to build capacity of their laboratories to detect the virus and strengthen surveillance for cases of fever and rash, neurological syndromes and birth defects.

“Countries should intensify their vector control programme and prepare health services for managing Zika virus disease,” Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh stated in a media statement.

According to WHO, people can protect themselves against mosquito bites by using insect repellent, wearing clothes that cover as much of the body as possible, and using physical barriers such as screens, closed doors and windows.

“Everyone should help prevent breeding of mosquitoes by emptying containers that hold standing water in and around their houses,” the statement states.

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh also urged countries to share information on suspected Zika virus disease to enable early detection and containment of any outbreak in the WHO South-East Asia Region.

WHO is providing support to countries in the region to step up surveillance and preventive measures against Zika. Besides, WHO has activated its new incident management system, established under the organization’s emergency reform programme.

WHO is also supporting countries to reduce the international spread of the disease and in countries where the disease has been detected, to help understand the potential link between the Zika virus and birth defects.

Kinga Dema