The Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) is mobilizing teams of international experts to help member countries prepare for outbreaks of Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that growing evidence suggests may be linked to microcephaly in newborns.
A team led by the director of PAHO/WHO's Department of Communicable Diseases, Dr. Marcos Espinal, met in the Dominican Republic this past week with more than 2,000 health officials, health service providers, emergency responders, academicians and medical specialists to discuss the threat of Zika and steps needed to prepare for its potential arrival and spread.
"Like chikungunya, Zika is a new virus that the population of the Americas has no immunity to," says Espinal. "It has already spread to 17 countries in our region, and the rest should be prepared for its further spread."
Zika is transmitted primarily by Aedes mosquitos, which also transmit chikungunya and dengue viruses and which are present in every country of the Americas except Canada and continental Chile.
Only 1 in 4 people infected with Zika virus develops symptoms, though it can sometimes cause serious complications in those who are infected. Of greatest concern, however, is a suspected link between Zika virus and an increase in microcephaly, or smaller-than-normal head size, in babies born to mothers who were infected during pregnancy. In Brazil, where Zika was first confirmed in May 2015, more than 3,500 suspected cases of microcephaly have been reported in areas where the virus is circulating.
"The causal link between Zika infection and microcephaly has not yet been proven, but the possibility that it is linked to the growing number of these cases makes it Zika urgent public health concern," says Espinal. "That's why we are working with all our member countries to prepare for and to limit the impact of this virus as much as possible."
Toward this end, PAHO/WHO has mobilized its own staff and members of the Global Outbreak and Response Network (GOARN) to assist ministries of health in strengthening their abilities to detect the arrival and circulation of Zika virus through laboratory testing and rapid reporting, to ensure accurate clinical diagnosis and treatment for patients, to track the spread of the virus and the mosquito that carries it, and to promote prevention, especially through mosquito control.
In addition to three large briefings held this week in the Dominican Republic, PAHO/WHO has also organized training in these key areas for the countries of Central America and the Southern Cone, and plans training for other countries of the region in the near future.
Besides briefing health officials, experts and providers this week in Santo Domingo, PAHO/WHO representatives also met with Minister of Health Altagracia Guzmán Marcelino and other health ministry officials to map out technical cooperation between PAHO/WHO and the country and to define next steps.
PAHO, founded in 1902, is the oldest international public health organization in the world. It works with its member countries to improve the health and the quality of life of the people of the Americas. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of WHO.