Coping with Zika
With the World Health Organization declaring the Zika virus a global threat, the Department of Health’s assurance that the Philippines remains Zika-free merits a second look.
Meant to assuage fears and prevent panic, the DOH’s seeming downplaying of the pandemic that has so far affected 28 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean should give way to more realistic risk-assessment and concrete guidelines on prevention, as a vaccine or treatment for the disease has yet to be developed.
What makes Zika a threat to the Philippines, as the physician Gideon Lasco, a regular contributor to Inquirer Opinion, has warned, is that its vector, the mosquito Aedes aegypti known to cause dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever, is endemic in the country, with El Niño’s warmer temperatures further raising our vulnerability to mosquito-borne diseases.
Even more alarming is the fact that people afflicted with Zika often exhibit mild symptoms that can very well be mistaken for mere flu: mild fever, sore throat, muscle pains, skin rash and red eyes that are self-limiting and can easily be relieved by rest and plenty of fluids—which was also how a 10-year-old boy in Cebu believed infected with the virus in 2012 recovered.
First isolated in Uganda in 1947 and named after the Zika forest found there, the virus had sporadically turned up in isolated cases since then, only to explode suddenly in Latin America. The WHO has warned that some four million people may be infected this year.
While the virus is not fatal, it can be devastating to pregnant women, as Zika has been linked to cases of microcephaly, a condition in infants marked by abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. Already, there has been a surge in microcephaly cases in Brazil, with 4,000 reported since October.
The virus has also been associated with the Guillain-Barre syndrome, a poorly understood condition that sometimes results in paralysis.
Although there is no direct flight from Brazil to the Philippines, the risk of travelers bringing the virus into the country is a very real possibility. Local airport authorities must therefore be vigilant in monitoring through thermal scanners the temperature of incoming travelers. But since detection in airports is limited because 75 percent of those infected by Zika do not manifest symptoms, officials must also launch an aggressive information campaign in airport premises to encourage travelers to accurately fill out the health cards that could trace carriers should Zika cases turn up in the country.
Travelers should also be advised to protect themselves from mosquito bites by wearing appropriate clothing, applying insect repellents, and using mosquito nets or wire-mesh screens.
The DOH must stress as well its “4S” campaign against the dengue mosquito as the pointers bear repeating: search and destroy (eliminate pockets of stagnant water where mosquitoes breed); self-protection (using insect repellents and long-sleeved clothing); seeking early consultation; and selective use of fogging or fumigation.
Just as necessary is the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine’s (RITM) plan to train health workers in the use of Zika testing kits in five other public hospitals nationwide: the Lung Center of the Philippines, Baguio General Hospital, San Lazaro Hospital, Southern Philippines Medical Center, and Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center.
But the RITM should also conduct intensive research on the virus and its vector, for widespread release to the public. With the WHO declaring a global emergency due to Zika’s “explosive spread,” countries vulnerable to the virus like the Philippines would hopefully get much-needed resources to conduct critical research on the cause of this pandemic.
The DOH should use all means available to mount an extensive information campaign on the virus—from media outlets to public health centers, to midwives and barangay health workers, to reach out to the grassroots and warn against this virus.
Alongside such preventive measures, the government must put in place permanent reforms in the health system: a proactive research agenda on tropical diseases and their vectors, sufficient training of health workers especially in rural areas, not to mention the budget to make this possible. From Ebola to Zika, there’s no telling what future health threats lie out there. The perennial question that must be asked is: How prepared are we to cope?
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