When the Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) convenes an emergency meeting, it must be assumed it is not to discuss trivialities. Six weeks ago, most of the world outside the areas where the Zika virus was endemic and increasingly being linked to microcephaly — had never heard of it. Today there is a level of concern globally not seen since the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the potential effects of the virus are no less devastating. The WHO is meeting in Geneva on February 1 to discuss what is evolving rapidly into a pandemic, and the world is ill-prepared. Zika does not kill, but in some cases, possibly millions, it causes an atrophy of the brain in unborn infants that is irreversible and leads to a life of complete dependence on their parents. Zika children may never speak or learn to read and write and most will have massively impaired cognition.
Currently Zika, which is carried by a mosquito, is limited to the Americas, a situation that will change. It was first identified in 1947 in Uganda and was considered a mild infection, but it has mutated over time and now presents a dreadful threat to women exposed to it in the early stages of pregnancy. There is no vaccine and currently the best advice is to avoid pregnancy completely — desperately unrealistic — or if pregnant cover arms and legs when you go out, use mosquito repellent and spray houses and stagnant water in order to eliminate the larvae that grow into the strain of mosquito that carries the virus. Given that the outbreak is on the other side of the world, it might be wondered whether there was cause for concern for Pakistan. Despite a statement by the WHO to the contrary, there should still be some concern. The chances of it arriving here may not be possible to estimate, but the infrastructure to tackle the virus is already here and used to counter dengue — which is carried by the same mosquito. Pakistani health authorities must remain prepared. The warning is clear and we ignore it at our peril.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2016.
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