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ZIKV alert! - Health Ministry issues warning as virus spreads through Americas

Published:Thursday | December 3, 2015 | 12:00 AMAnastasia Cunningham
Horace Dalley (right), minister of health, in discussion with Dr Carl Bruce at the Ministry of Health’s national training seminar for senior health staff, on the country’s preparedness and response to ZIKV, at the Knutsford Court Hotel in Kingston, yersterday.

The zika virus is not to be taken lightly because if contracted, it can create serious complications, including death, especially for pregnant women and infants, warns the Ministry of Health.

Although to date there are no confirmed cases of the zika virus (ZIKV) in Jamaica, the country has now been placed on high alert, with the mosquito-borne virus rapidly spreading across the Americas and the Caribbean. ZIKV has now been confirmed in nine countries in the region, and health officials believe it is only a matter of time before it reaches Jamaica.

"There has been transmission of the Zika virus in nine countries in the Caribbean and Latin America region - Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Suriname, and Venezuela," health minister Horace Dalley said yesterday.

"So this is not a matter of if, but when Zika will be introduced into Jamaica, so preparation is key. The health team has to be prepared, and the population has to be prepared, in terms of what to expect and what they need to do to minimise impact."

ZIKV is transmitted from human to human by the bites of infected mosquitoes of the aedes species, particularly the Aedes aegypti, which also transmits dengue and chikungunya (chik-V). Interestingly, there have been reports of non-vector-borne transmission of ZIKV through perinatal and sexual intercourse. Blood transfusion has also been identified as a potential means of transmission.

According to the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), the spread of ZIKV has been rapid.

Chile reported its first confirmed case in February last year on Easter Island, while it was first confirmed in Brazil in May this year. By October to November, the other seven countries were reporting cases of the virus.

Up to Tuesday, Brazil was reporting three deaths associated with ZIKV.

Dalley stressed that with constant global travel, it was impossible to prevent the introduction of diseases to the island's shores, but the country can do what was necessary to minimise the impact, and he has promised to do what was in his power to achieve that.

Recounting his own personal experience of the impact of the chik-V epidemic that rocked Jamaica little over a year ago, Dalley said the first step in ensuring that the country was not caught off guard with ZIKV was yesterday's all-day training seminar for senior health officials from across the island, on Jamaica's preparedness and response to the virus, held at the Knutsford Court Hotel in St Andrew.

"One thing is for certain and it is that we cannot sit and wait. We have to act, and by 'we', I mean every Jamaican. We have to take an integrated approach with social mobilisation as a very key component. In the past, much of our strength was in our ability to work closely with communities and provide the necessary ongoing education. We have to seek to rebuild this approach with urgency," Dalley said,

"One of our main challenges will be to sustain a truly integrated system, involving players within and outside of public health while promoting efficient synergies and cooperation, but we simply have to get it done. Today, as we review the Ministry's preparedness and response strategies, we have to also work to build back the trust in the health system and that also requires a team approach."




Health officials are stressing that pregnant women and neonates are at greatest risk for developing complications from the Zika virus infection. After the outbreak in Brazil, more than 1,200 babies were found to have microcephaly, which results in an abnormal growth of the brain and stunting of the growth of the head of the foetus, arising from infection in the first three months of pregnancy.

"There is a possible link between the Zika virus infection and birth defects. Pregnant women are among the high-risk group for severe symptoms. Children under five years old, the elderly and persons with chronic non-communicable diseases are also at greater risk. We, therefore, appeal to all Jamaicans but especially those who fall in this group to take precautions and prevent being bitten by mosquitoes as best as possible," noted Chief Medical Officer Dr Marion Bullock DuCasse.

Bullock DuCasse said ZIKV was an emerging infectious disease that health officials across the world were constantly learning about. She emphasised that if introduced, it would be a new virus to Jamaica, which means it would have a significant impact on the population. She said, similar to the chik-V epidemic, it was not possible to predict how the population would be affected by ZIKV.

Dalley added, "I do not think anyone fully understands what we are dealing with and the research into Zika is ongoing. We will have to be in a position to quickly revise our strategies once we gather new information from the experiences in the countries affected so far.

"I have to stress that the Zika virus preparedness and response strategy will require the full participation of citizens. The Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries the dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses breeds mainly in and around homes, business places, schools, and places of worship - all places where people generally gather and live. What can citizens do? You can destroy mosquito breeding sites by eliminating places where water can settle."

ZIKV was first isolated in 1947 from a febrile rhesus monkey in the Zika forest of Uganda during a research project on the transmission of jungle yellow fever. The virus was first isolated in humans in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania.

Infection from the virus is considered to be mild to moderate in severity and self-limiting. Common symptoms include fever, skin rash, headaches, inflammation of the eyes and joint pain, and last for three to seven days.

Complications can develop, primarily neurological disorders. Co-infections of ZIKV and dengue have been reported.

There is currently no cure for the disease. Therefore, persons can only treat symptoms associated with it.

Doctors are urged to report all suspected cases immediately. Blood samples of suspected cases should be sent to the National Public Health Laboratory (NPHL), according to protocol, which will be sent to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) in Trinidad for confirmation.