Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that three cases of Zika infection had been found in India. The claim was confirmed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW). All three cases – the first infection of this kind in the country – had been reported from Ahmedabad (Bapunagar area) in Gujarat and were detected between November 2016 and February 2017. All three cases were detected during a routine surveillance for dengue testing.
To fully grasp the gravity of the threat posed by the detection, let us take a look at the Zika virus and the threat it poses. Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that is transmitted to humans by the bite of the Aedes mosquito which remains active during the day. The earliest detection of the Zika in animal hosts (monkeys) and the study of its effects dates back to 1947 when the infection affected primates in the Zika forest of Uganda in eastern Africa. The first Zika infection in humans was detected in 1952. Till about 2007 Zika infection was reported only from parts of Africa and Asia. In 2007 a large outbreak was reported from the region of Oceania (Island of yap, Federated States of Micronesia). In 2016, when a number of cases were detected in Brazil (South America), the WHO declared the spread of the virus a global public health emergency.
How Does Zika Affect Humans?
The Zika Virus does not leave any lasting effects on its adult human hosts. Some patients complain of fever, headaches, joint aches, and rashes but these clear within a few days. There is no known cure and rest is usually enough to heal those affected. The grave threat posed by the Zika virus, however, is due to its effects on the fetus or unborn child. When a pregnant woman is affected by the virus there is a high likelihood that the unborn child may be affected by microcephaly. In this condition babies are born with abnormally small heads and brain development is also arrested. It causes stunted development, deafness, blindness, and other lasting complications. Zika is also sexually transmitted and an outbreak may affect an entire generation.
How Can We Prevent Zika Infection?
Each year the summer months bring along the menace of dengue, malaria, and chikungunya outbreaks in India. Given the widespread nature of such outbreaks, Indians now fear that Zika may also be added to the list of woes due to breeding of mosquitoes in both urban and rural regions. In February last year, a Hyderabad based pharmaceutical company claimed to have two vaccines ready to combat the dreaded Zika virus. It may be years, though, before these vaccines undergo the necessary trials and regulatory clearances and become commercially available. Until then the only way Indians can prevent its spread is by maintaining a clean and dry environment. Cleaning out the trash and stagnant water regularly and using mosquito nets and repellants are preventive measures that may be routinely undertaken.
Despite the natural fear that accompanies such announcements we may well keep in mind that India’s public health response system is a rather sound one. The government has instituted a panel to monitor the global developments and spread of the virus. Airports carry prominent displays about the virus and other vector borne diseases. A number of testing laboratories have been equipped to study and test for the presence of the Zika virus. Test kits have been distributed and the district that reported the outbreak is being closely watched for the possibility of more cases. We the people are equally responsible for the well-being of our families and society. We must do our bit to keep the surroundings clean and prevent breeding of mosquitoes.