The alert on Zika virus

THE world was justly alarmed last week when the World Health Organ­isation (WHO) warned that the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne infection, has been reported in 21 countries in South America and the Caribbeans. The WHO Director-General, Marga­ret Chan, observed that the virus was spreading explosively in the world and that its threat has grown from mild to alarming, necessitating the convening of experts to do a world-wide assessment.

The Federal Government has, in a quick response, instituted travel re­strictions to Latin American countries by pregnant women until the situa­tion improves. The virus has been linked to cases of microcephaly, the birth of babies with underdeveloped brains. More than 4,000 such babies have been born in Brazil since May last year, forcing the country, which is to host the 2016 Olympics Games, to repeatedly assure the world that it is on top of the situation and that athletes and fans need not fear for their health during the Games.

The Zika virus, on face value, seems a fairly innocuous infection. It is neither infectious nor contagious, although there has been an unconfirmed report of a transmission through sex. Only 20 per cent of those infected become ill and the symptoms are the fairly familiar symptoms of other tropical maladies – fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes) — which set off no alarm bells. The ill­ness is usually mild and the symptoms last for several days to a week and rarely require hospitalisation and no death has been directly reported as arising from them.

But, the effects rise to stratospheric heights when the virus attacks pregnant women. Birth abnormalities are a mother’s nightmare, and Zika has been held responsible for children born with abnormally small craniums and brain defi­ciencies. At least four countries – Brazil, El Salvador, Colombia and Ecuador – have advised their women to abstain from getting pregnant for at least two years. The hope is that within that period, the world would have found a way round the Zika virus. Such optimism is supported by a report that Biotech International Limited, an Indian company, has developed the world’s first vaccine against the Zika virus, and had filed a vaccine patent about nine months ago.

The vector for this scary virus is the aedes mosquito family which is also the carrier for dengue fever and yellow fever. There are fears that the virus could be brought into the country through importation of used tyres from Latin Ameri­can countries. Since there has been no known case of the Zika virus in Nigeria, the Federal Government must mobilise all state governments and health facili­ties to be on emergency footing in terms of information dissemination and in monitoring of any symptoms that may have any similarities to those of the Zika infection.

It may be necessary for Nigeria to restrict the importation of goods from the affected countries. Otherwise, we must ensure a pre-embarkation inspection of all such imports and the fumigation of the containers that carry them into the country. We need hardly say that aircraft flying in from Brazil and other South American countries must be fumigated immediately on arrival.

We think it was most thoughtful for the Federal Government to impose travel restrictions on pregnant women. Microcephaly is a dreadful disease which not only impairs the speech of the afflicted child but also blocks its mental develop­ment. Because of the newness of this disease, it is not yet known the extent of the damage and whether the symptoms are reversible with time and therapy. All hands must be on deck, therefore, to forestall its entrance into the country. It is our hope that given the world’s attention and determination to seek a solution for it, it will not be long before some answers are found.

The advent of the Zika virus underscores our inability to win the war against mosquitoes. Malaria continues to be one of the major causes of death of Nigeri­ans and a great reminder of how much more we need to do in the fight against mosquitoes. We urge the Federal Ministry of Health to return to the Ebola playbook, and once more lead the charge in the campaign for cleanliness and environmental sanitation. We need to deny mosquitoes any breeding place in this country. Our scientists should also join in the quest to counter the Zika virus.

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