Zika Alarms Public Health Officials

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January 29th, 2016 by Trudy Henson

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It may be hard to think about a warm-weather pest like mosquitos when the region is still digging out from record snowfalls, but that’s exactly what the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) is asking people to do: focus on the Aedes mosquito, the main transmitter of the Zika virus.

On Thursday, the World Health Organization “rang a global alarm” about the Zika virus, citing its rapid spread in South America—particularly Brazil—and stating that as many as four million people in the Americas could be affected by the end of the year. A day earlier, lead public health advocates urged in a JAMA article that public health and emergency preparedness agencies should begin preparation and mitigation efforts for the disease.

The Zika virus is a generally mild disease with symptoms such as fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise, and headache that can last from 2-7 days. Up to 80% of those infected may have no symptoms. So what’s the reason for the alarm?

As the World Health Organization reports, agencies investigating Zika outbreaks are “finding an increasing body of evidence about the link between Zika virus and microcephaly.” Microcephaly is a rare condition in which infants are born with “abnormally small heads and damaged brains.” Although the WHO states causation between Zika and microcephaly is not yet established, Brazil—where a number of Zika cases are located—has seen a dramatic increase in microcephaly. Although twenty-one countries and territories of the Americas have reported cases, the impending 2016 Rio summer Olympics have only heightened concern, not least of all because officials believe the event could act as a springboard for the spread of the disease.

In the United States, officials are stating that the risk of a “home-grown” outbreak is low, given the U.S.’ more effective mosquito control. Cases of Zika that have been reported in the U.S.—such as Hawaii, Illinois, Florida, and Texas—have all been linked to international travel in areas affected by Zika. The JAMA authors urged the U.S. and other countries to prepare by adopting and implementing strategies now, such as vector control, risk communication, enhanced Zika surveillance, and travel advisories, as well as other steps, to help countries stay ahead of the disease.

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