Manuel Innocencio de Lacerda Santos Jr, Embajdor de Brasil en Australia
On Monday, February 1, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Zika virus, transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, an international public health emergency.
The announcement followed the declaration by Brazil of a national public health emergency. An outbreak of the Zika virus was detected last year in Brazil.
The virus has since been found in several countries in Latin America and, more recently, the United States. The main concern is over the virus' link to microcephaly, a congenital condition where a child is born with a smaller than normal head size and impaired brain development.
The WHO declaration will allow for better coordination of actions and mobilisation of the necessary funding in a global effort aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, as well as speeding up the research to develop a vaccine and new therapeutic drugs.
Despite the real public health risk, it is important to avoid misinformation. At this point, there is no reason to cancel business or pleasure trips, but extra precautions must be taken by pregnant women, who should talk to a doctor before travelling to the most affected areas.
As the Brazilian ambassador in Washington, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, has pointed out in a recent article, the Zika is not a new Ebola, its symptoms being similar to a mild flu in adults.
The Zika virus is of course a matter of concern, given association with microcephaly in newborn babies. More data and standardised protocols are needed before the link – first discovered by Brazilian doctors – between the virus and such cases of abnormally small heads and brain damage can be fully clarified.
Microcephaly in newborn babies can also be caused by a number of other diseases. Health experts are dealing with something new: the link between Zika and microcephaly is unprecedented in the scientific literature and requires in-depth studies and analyses – which are already under way – both to find out what is really happening and to determine the risk level for pregnant women.
The Brazilian Ministry of Health is investigating 5909 suspected cases of microcephaly in the country. According to the latest information released on February 27, 641 diagnoses of microcephaly were confirmed, of which 82 were linked to the Zika virus. Another 1046 suspected cases of microcephaly had their diagnosis discarded. This in no way diminishes the seriousness of the risk, nor does it weaken the resolve of the Brazilian government to take action.
From a Brazilian perspective, this fight is global, regional, and national. Globally, the WHO will be the main coordinator of efforts in this fight to control the virus worldwide. On the regional level, Brazil is also in permanent contact with the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) and regional partners.
At the domestic level, the Brazilian government is seriously addressing this issue as a matter of utmost importance, not only in view of the Olympics but also because of its potential long-term impact on the Brazilian people. The federal government has launched a three-front National Plan to Combat the Aedes and Microcephaly: prevention and combat against the Aedes aegypti; healthcare and assistance to pregnant women and children; and research. All efforts are co-ordinated by the federal government in partnership with state and local governments.
In order to fight the vector of the infection, the mosquito, the Brazilian government has deployed 220,000 troops and 300,000 health agents, who are visiting communities to educate the population and help eliminate all mosquito breeding grounds.
Insecticides and larvicides, as well as repellents, are also being employed as traditional weapons that proved efficient in the past. The mobilisation also involves the civil society, schools, NGOs and other public and private institutions in a broad-based alliance to raise public awareness about the infection and prevent the spread of the disease.
Apart from these more traditional strategies and the efforts to strengthen its healthcare network, Brazil is investing in technology and research to develop a vaccine and new therapies. A genetically modified mosquito, now under trial, could offer a new and promising weapon. Our national public health institutions are reaching out to their partners abroad to strengthen the research network and develop more efficient diagnostic kits, antiviral drugs and a Zika vaccine.
In Brazil, the Butantan, Chagas, Pasteur, and FioCruz Institutes operate as leading world-class institutions with vast experience in tropical diseases and a successful record in technological development. All the available expertise and manpower of these and other organisations is now directed towards this fight, in co-operation with international partners. The private sector, especially drug companies, is also investing in research into new and innovative ways to defeat the virus. This is an emergency, but Brazil and the world have the know-how and are able to muster the human and material resources to meet the challenge.
The Brazilian government promptly notified PAHO and WHO about the Zika outbreak and is taking the measures that have proved effective in similar situations in the past. I am certain that this strategy will pay off.
While any reaction based on misinformation may disrupt our daily lives without helping to solve the problem, effective measures require scientifically consistent data, transparency, rational planning, and decisive action. The international community must unite in this global effort and draw the right lessons to improve the international framework for preventing and fighting epidemics and tropical diseases. Brazil will continue to do its part with resolve and determination.
As Brazil prepares for the Olympics in August, authorities are working hard to rid the Rio de Janeiro region and the whole country of Aedis aegypti mosquitoes. Moreover, the Olympics will take place during winter in the southern hemisphere, a period of cooler temperatures, which usually contribute to a sharp decrease in mosquito-borne illnesses. We are perfectly aware of the responsibility of being the first South American country to host the Olympics. It was to me a source of great satisfaction to hear from Kitty Chiller, Australia's chef de mission for the Rio Olympics, that she had a good impression from the preparation for the Games and that she is confident the event will be successful.