Carlos Martins Ceglia, Embajador de Brasil en Malasia e en Brunei
The ongoing Zika outbreak, which has spread to more than 20 countries, is compelling the international community to step up efforts to stop the virus propagation and better understand its effects in the human organism.
The virus itself is not unfamiliar to mankind. It was first isolated in 1947 in Uganda and since then it has been found in Africa, tropical Asia and Oceania. Nor is its vector, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also the infamous transmitter of dengue and chikungunya. Yet this is a completely new situation in terms of international public health and for the global scientific community.
The Zika virus is now drawing more international attention mainly due to its relation with microcephaly, a congenital condition where babies are born with a smaller than normal head size, causing limited brain development. This link was discovered by Brazilian scientists last year, not long after the first Zika case was identified in the country, and its nature and mechanism are still under investigation by scientists all over the world. Microcephaly can be caused by a number of other diseases.
The Brazilian Government declared the Zika virus outbreak a national public health emergency in November, and the World Health Organization (WHO) classified it as an international public health emergency on Feb 1. With an integrated universal public health care system with free treatment provision, Brazil has reacted swiftly since the identification of the epidemic outbreak to understand the virus, the manner that it appears and evolves as well as the risk factors associated with it.
As with any emergency situation, despite the real public health risk, it is important to put facts in the proper perspective and avoid unwarranted panic. WHO, the main coordinator of this fight on a global scale, has stated that there should be no international travel or trade restrictions because of the virus. Brazil is open for business (and leisure). Despite such national concern and engagement, Brazilians are leading their lives with their usual conviviality, as the cheerful pictures and videos of the recently celebrated Carnival loudly tell.
Nevertheless, as usually advisable when planning to explore different places, travellers bound for the affected areas should take basic precautions. Pregnant women, in particular, should take special care and consult a doctor before deciding to travel to the affected areas. It is also wise to adopt measures to reduce the presence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, such as by keeping doors and windows shut or using insect window mesh screens, wearing trousers and long sleeves and applying suitable mosquito repellents. So far, there is no scientific conclusion that the virus may be transmitted other than by infected mosquito bite.
The Zika virus is not another Ebola. About 80% of people infected by the Zika virus do not develop any clinical signs, whether they are adults or children. Overall, the evolution of the disease is benign and the symptoms disappear spontaneously after three to seven days. Severe and atypical forms are rare but their occurrence cannot be overlooked. The possible risk of microcephaly makes infections of pregnant women particularly worrisome.
For the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the government of Brazil has already adopted major precautions. All construction areas for the Olympic venues have regular visits from health officers in order to control any possible mosquito breeding site. During the Games, all of the Olympic venues will be manned by at least one accredited health officer tasked with carrying out a daily sweep of areas that could potentially become breeding sites.
To further enhance the protection of tourists and athletes visiting the city, agents will be operating in the whole region surrounding the competition and public gathering areas. Moreover, the Olympics will take place during winter in Brazil, a period of cooler temperatures and lower humidity, which usually make for a sharp decrease in mosquito-borne illnesses. As WHO Director-General Margaret Chan was reported saying during a recent visit to Brazil, the government is working closely with the relevant organisations to make sure that people who go to Brazil either as visitors or athletes will get the maximum protection they need.
The Brazilian government is seriously addressing this issue as a matter of utmost importance not only in view of the Olympics. The Brazilian government has deployed 220,000 troops and 300,000 health agents who are educating the population and helping to eliminate all mosquito breeding grounds. Insecticides, larvicides and repellents are also being employed. In some cases, even drones are being flown to spot mosquitoes’ possible breeding sites.
Brazil is also investing in technology and research to develop new methods to fight the Aedes aegypti and the Zika virus. The Butantan, Chagas, Pasteur, and FioCruz Institutes in Brazil, as well as the main universities, are world-class institutions widely experienced in the research of tropical diseases. Brazilian scientists have also mapped the genome sequence of the Zika virus, which may be a consequential breakthrough in the efforts to understand the mechanism of the virus in the infected organism.
From a broader perspective, our national public health institutions are forging partnerships with counterparts abroad in the development of more efficient diagnostic kits, antiviral drugs and a Zika vaccine. Dialogue with international bodies has been intensified, such as with the WHO and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In this truly global effort, talks are also being held with relevant authorities in Malaysia with a view to sharing our experiences and findings in the hunt for the Aedes aegypti.
While any reaction based on misinformation may disrupt our daily lives without actually helping to solve the problem, effective measures require scientifically consistent data, transparent coordination, broad engagement and decisive action. We should draw the right lessons from this global fight and see it as a call to improve the international framework for preventing and fighting epidemics and tropical diseases. Brazil is deeply engaged in this quest.