US researchers are urging the World Health Organisation (WHO) to take action against the mosquito-borne virus, Zika. Transmitted by the mosquito, Aedes albopictus, the Zika virus has been linked to thousands of birth defects in Brazil, and continues to spread throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.1 The virus is said to cause microcephaly in children whose mothers contracted the virus while they were still in the womb.
Microcephaly is a condition where a baby’s head is much smaller than normal and occurs when a baby’s brain hasn’t developed properly during pregnancy, or has stopped growing after birth.2 Evidence of the virus has been found in the placenta and amniotic fluid of mothers, and in the brains of foetuses or newborns.3 Since 2010, there has been a dramatic increase of microcephaly in Brazil, with almost 4,000 cases of the condition reported in 2015.3
Originally identified in Uganda in 1947, the Zika virus has since spread across Africa and also into South East Asia. Zika virus disease, much like yellow fever, affects one in five people and presents symptoms such as fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis, or redness around the eyes.4 However 80 per cent of those infected show no symptoms, making it rather difficult for pregnant women to know if they are infected or not.5
Researchers at Georgetown University, USA, are urging WHO to “heed the lessons of Ebola” and focus all their attention on the Zika virus epidemic. Their plea follows criticism of WHO’s Director-General, Margaret Chan, whose delayed response to the Ebola outbreak resulted in thousands of lost lives. It took Chan four months before declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern to control the Ebola epidemic.
According to Dr Daniel Lucy, an infectious disease expert from Georgetown University Medical Centre quoted in a recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on January 27, 2016, reach models have anticipated “significant international spread by travellers from Brazil to the rest of the Americas, Europe, and Asia.”
The urge to control this disease is now imperative, with WHO measures and it’s leadership role having failed, despite WHO stating on January 18, that it is “supporting countries to control Zika,” citing the need for surveillance, laboratories, vector control (controlling mosquitoes spreading disease), and clinical care. Zika spread and its potential global impact has further urgency, given the pending 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The United States is now concerned about an epidemic, with President Barack Obama ordering rapid development of tests, vaccines and treatments to fight the virus which could potentially spread to America in the warmer months (May – September).
What about Australia?
There is genuine potential for the Zika virus to spread to Australia through travellers returning from the Americas. Fortunately however, there is a plan of action should the outbreak occur here. Dr Cameron Webb, a clinical lecturer at the Institute of Clinical Pathology and Medical Research at the University of Sydney said, “if there was an outbreak, local health authorities would try to kill the mosquitoes and their eggs in the affected area quickly, while infected people would be isolated to limit the spread of their blood by other mosquitoes.”6
Dr Webb noted the Brazil outbreak highlighted the importance of Australia’s efforts to keep exotic mosquitoes out of the country, particularly Aedes albopictus or the Asian tiger mosquito, which is also capable of transmitting Zika.6 As the climate changes and becomes warmer, there is greater potential for the Asian tiger mosquito to establish itself in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne.6
Associate Professor Nigel Beebe from the University of Queensland has recently been quoted as saying “to prevent this species and others from entering Australia, there were traps designed to catch them within 400 metres of every Australian port.”6 When foreign species are caught in these traps, scientists are typically able to examine the species and their eggs, and determine their origin.6 Scientists can then use this information to inform health, agriculture and travel authorities 6
The Department of Foreign Trade and Affairs is advising pregnant women to avoid travel in areas where Zika is active. The Federal Government is also requesting Australian doctors to look out for signs of Zika infection in travellers returning from affected areas. A government spokeswoman said Australian laboratories could diagnose the virus if required. Sydney Morning Herald, January 29, 2016.6
- Caught off-guard by Zika, Brazil struggles with deformed babies. Reuters, 28, January, 2016. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-zika-brazil-idUSKCN0V52F4
- Cdc.gov, (2016). Facts about Microcephaly | Birth Defects | NCBDDD | CDC. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/microcephaly.html
- Lucey, D. R. & Gostin, L. O., 2016. The Emerging Zika Pandemic. Journal of the American Medical Association. Published online January 27, 2016. doi:1001/jama.2016.0904
- 5 Things to Know About Zika Virus. WSJ, 18, January, 2016. Available at: http://blogs.wsj.com/briefly/2016/01/18/5-things-to-know-about-zika-virus/
- WHO urged to take action on Zika virus. Sky News, 28, January, 2016. Available at: http://www.skynews.com.au/news/top-stories/2016/01/28/denmark-reports-first-zika-virus-case.html
- Australia, the Zika virus and why we need to keep exotic mosquitoes out. The Sydney Morning Herald, 29, January, 2016. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/national/health/zika-virus-set-to-reach-australia-but-can-be-contained-swiftly-say-experts-20160129-gmgydw.html