Political commitment needed in the Caribbean to fight Zika virus: PAHO

The Director of the Pan American Health Organization Dr. Carissa Etienne, left, Uruguay’s Health Minister Jorge Basso listens as Brazil’s Health Minister Marcelo Castro speak during a press conference after attending the summit to address the spread of Zika virus in the region, at the Mercosur building in Montevideo, Uruguay, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. The ministers of 13 countries are meeting to coordinate efforts to fight the spread of the mosquito born virus.
Associated Press / Matilde Campodonico

The Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr. Carissa Etienne has called for political commitment and more resources are urgently fight the spread of Zika in the Americas, including the Caribbean.

Dr. Etienne told ministers of health on Wednesday in a meeting convened by the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), in Montevideo, Uruguay, that countries in the Americas need to allocate new resources to step up mosquito control efforts.

She said that they also need to prepare their health services for an increase in demand, carry out public education campaigns and track the spread of Zika and increases in suspected complications of the virus, including microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

“This work will require tangible and explicit support from the highest political levels,” the Dominican-born Etienne said.

Later, in remarks to reporters, Etienne announced a new PAHO strategy to help countries mitigate the impact of Zika by strengthening their abilities to detect the introduction and spread of the virus, reduce mosquito populations, ensure the necessary healthcare services, and effectively communicate with the public on risks and prevention measures.

To implement this strategy, Etienne said PAHO is seeking an initial US$8.5 million from the international community to support country efforts.

Wednesday’s special meeting came just two days after the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern due to clusters of microcephaly in areas with Zika circulation.

To date, Brazil has reported more than 3,000 suspected cases of microcephaly, which are currently under investigation.

Etienne said gaps in knowledge about Zika should not delay action to fight the virus.

“One fact of which we are unequivocally sure is that the Zika virus — like dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever viruses — is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito,” she said.

“The most effective control measures are the prevention of mosquito bites and the reduction of mosquito populations,” she added, stating that “this points to action by governments, but, in addition communities, families and individuals must be effectively mobilized to undertake the very critical work of eliminating mosquito breeding sites, including derelict vehicles, discarded tires, uncovered water barrels and other containers.”

Etienne appealed for special attention to the needs of women of child-bearing age, and particularly women in low-income communities, who often lack access to the information and health services they need to protect themselves.

“The reality is that large numbers of women in our region lack access to sex education and effective methods of contraception,” she said. “It is highly probable that these same women may live under conditions of vulnerability, in neighborhoods where, for example, housing and environmental conditions provide an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, consequently increasing their potential exposure to mosquito bites.

“We must, therefore, make every effort to invest resources in comprehensive reproductive health services,” she added.

Following the meeting, the ministers of health of MERCOSUR and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) issued a joint declaration pledging to improve their countries’ mosquito-control strategies by drawing on recent experience and by simultaneously targeting not only Zika but other mosquito-borne viruses, especially dengue and chikungunya.

Ministers called on PAHO to support their efforts with direct technical cooperation, promote south-south cooperation and develop protocols and guidelines on surveillance, risk communication and clinical management, through a technical team in the region.

To date, 26 countries and territories of the Americas have reported local transmission of Zika virus infection.

PAHO said the hemisphere’s first local cases appeared on Chile’s Easter Island in February 2014, and, in May 2015, Brazil reported the first locally transmitted cases on the American continent.

In early March, PAHO said it will host a meeting of research partners, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Pasteur Institute and the Oswald Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), among others, to develop a research agenda to address the gaps in knowledge and evidence about Zika and its health effects.

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