Red Cross/ Red Crescent Climate Centre

IFRC calls for urgent action on Zika as WHO declares global emergency

01/02/2016 - by the Climate Centre

An emergency meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva today declared a “public health emergency of international concern” because of the spread of the Zika virus, which is suspected of causing of causing brain abnormalities in babies in Brazil.

The move makes available extra funds, resources and expertise to combat the mosquito-borne disease.

WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan told a briefing in Geneva: “I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes a public-health emergency of international concern.”

Zika was “spreading explosively”, Dr Chan said last week, adding that “conditions associated with this year’s El Niño weather pattern are expected to increase mosquito populations greatly in many areas.”

Cases had been reported in 23 countries and territories in the region.

‘Informed decisions’

The IFRC’s Director for the Americas region, Walter Cotte, said in a press release last week that “urgent action” is needed to contain the virus, involving governments, donors and civil society in working together to improve environmental sanitation and suppress disease vectors.

“The only way to stop Zika virus disease is to control mosquito vectors or completely interrupt the human-to-vector contact, alongside measures to reduce poverty,” he said.

“Our decades of experience in preventing and responding to outbreaks of dengue, malaria, Chagas disease and chikungunya have taught us that environmental sanitation, strengthening community health systems, and public communication around hygiene save lives.

“Community-based Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers can rapidly deliver the crucial health messages that allow communities to make informed decisions that reduce their risks, such as eliminating mosquito-breeding sites.”

Some media reports on Zika in recent weeks have focused on possible links with climate factors like high global temperatures last year and the current El Niño.

Research

Climate Centre Director Maarten van Aalst, speaking from The Hague, said: “The most recent assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Working Group II – found that climate change affects human health through indirect impacts from environmental and ecosystem changes, like shifts in patterns of disease-carrying mosquitoes and ticks, among other ways.

“More research will be necessary, however, before we can say with any confidence how climate change or El Niño is affecting the spread of Zika – much less intensively studied than other vector-borne diseases such as malaria.”

The Zika virus is named after the Zika forest in Uganda where it was discovered in 1947; the first human case was recorded in Nigeria in 1952.

Brazilian Red Cross volunteers team up with local-authority health teams late last month for mosquito ‘D-Day’ in Rio Grande do Norte state. (Photo: Rio Grande do Norte state government via Twitter)