The widely feared Zika virus linked to surging cases of neurological disorders and birth defects has been found in Africa, health officials said last Friday.
Although it is believed that Zika virus originated from Africa- Uganda’s Zika forest- and that some people on the continent seem to have developed immunity to the disease, the strain that’s currently spreading in Cape Verde is different. It is the so-called Asian strain that has caused havoc in the Americas.
"This is the first time that strain of Zika which has been showed to cause neurological disorders and microcephaly... has been detected in Africa," Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization's Africa regional chief, told reporters in Geneva.
The Asian strain of the virus which has infected about 1.5 million people in Brazil, the worst affected country, is said to have infected more than 7,000 people in the island nation off the western coast of Africa.
As a result, three babies have developed microcephaly, with about 180 pregnant women feared to have been infected.
In Africa, where mosquito control is a menace and adequate resources to fight the spread of the diseases are limited, the impact could be devastating if the virus continues to spread to the rest of the nations.
Some nearby countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia are just coming out of the Ebola epidemic nightmare which paralyzed health infrastructure and being hit by another virus like Zika could proof difficult to handle in such states and others struggling with conflicts.
"The findings are of concern because it is further proof that the outbreak is spreading beyond South America and is on the doorstep of Africa," said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.
The concerns over the spread of Zika virus in the continent are made worse by the fact that the region is also fighting another mosquito-related threat- yellow fever.
Yellow fever which is also spread by the Aedes aegypti – the same mosquito that spreads the Zika virus, was first reported in Angola’s capital city Luanda, in December 2015. Its symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. A small percentage of infected people experience a second more severe phase of illness which includes high fever, jaundice, and internal bleeding. At least half of severely affected patients who don’t receive treatment die within 10 to 14 days.
Last Thursday, an emergency advisory committee to the WHO termed the spread of yellow fever in Africa a serious concern and called for drastic expansion of the vaccination campaign to combat it.
“The urban yellow fever outbreaks in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a serious public health event which warrants intensified national action and enhanced international support,” the committee said calling for an acceleration of surveillance, mass vaccination, risk communications, among other actions.
The agency stopped short of declaring a global health emergency, because the outbreak appears to be coming under control.
Although Dr Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian yellow fever expert who heads the advisory panel noted they were dealing with a serious issue, he added that “it does not constitute a public health emergency of international concern.”
The outbreak which has since spread to other countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and China. WHO has urged concerned nations to continue vaccinating against the disease which has claimed more than 300 lives already.
While yellow fever is not associated with microcephaly or the neurological disorders like Zika, it is fatal in itself as it kills through high fever, liver damage, and organ failure.
Last month, the Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention said it could not give Africa the much-needed support as it normally would have because most of its mosquito-disease experts were fighting the Zika virus in Brazil and elsewhere.
If only mosquitos could be eliminated!
The spread of Zika and other mosquito-caused diseases is “the price paid for a massive policy failure that dropped the ball on mosquito control in the 1970s,” World Health Organization leader Margaret Chan acknowledged.
Speaking at the agency's annual World Health Assembly, Dr Chan called on people to avoid mosquito bites as the organization continues to look for means to manage the disease.
"With no vaccines and no reliable and widely available diagnostic tests, to protect women of childbearing age, all we can offer is advice.
"Avoid mosquito bites. Delay pregnancy. Do not travel to areas with ongoing transmission," said Dr Chan.
Apart from Zika, other diseases also spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito such as yellow fever, and West Nile viruses, have no treatment for now. People can only take preventive measures against the diseases.
With Zika virus in the continent, Africa needs to increase surveillance for the disease transmission and congenital malformations such as such as microcephaly, as well as Guillain-Barré syndrome- a rare paralyzing condition caused by Zika.
Image credit: AP