MANILA, Philippines – The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Zika virus a global public health emergency, with the Department of Health (DOH) warning that the threat of the mosquito-borne virus reaching the Philippines is real.
The UN agency sought to build an international response to the threat, which has been linked to thousands of birth defects in Brazil. Honduras on Monday declared a state of emergency as Zika infections soared. (See story on Page 15.)
WHO director general Margaret Chan told reporters that coordinated international action was needed to improve detection and expedite work on a vaccine and better diagnostics for the disease, but said curbs on travel or trade were not necessary.
Chan, whose agency was assailed as too slow in reacting to West Africa’s Ebola epidemic that killed more than 10,000 people in the past two years, cited “first and foremost the concern about microcephaly,” the birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and improperly developed brains.
She noted that it was “strongly suspected but not yet scientifically proven” that Zika causes microcephaly.
“Can you imagine if we do not do all this work now, and wait until the scientific evidence comes out?” Chan told reporters at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. “Then people will say that, ‘Why don’t you take action because the mosquito is ubiquitous?’”
The emergency designation, recommended by a committee of independent experts following criticism of a hesitant response to Zika so far, should help fast-track international action and research priorities. The move lends official urgency to research funding and other steps to stem the spread of the virus.
The WHO said the Zika virus, transmitted by the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, was “spreading explosively” and could infect as many as four million people in the Americas. The Pan American Health Organization says Zika has spread in 24 nations and territories in the Americas.
This marks the fourth time the WHO has declared a global health emergency since such procedures were put in place in 2007, with the others arising from influenza, Ebola and polio.
DOH: Zika threat real
The DOH said the threat of the Zika virus in the Philippines is real due to the existence of mosquitoes not only in the country but its neighboring nations as well.
“Because of the existence of mosquitoes, the risk is there… It’s an old virus with a new occurrence, a possible public health threat. There is still a lot more that we need to know about the virus,” Health Secretary Janette Garin told reporters.
Garin said what is important is to eliminate all possible breeding sites of mosquitoes.
Zika virus is transmitted by infected day-biting Aedes aegypti, the same mosquito species that causes dengue and chikungunya.
According to Garin, the Philippines is not among 29 countries reporting cases of Zika virus.
Although the first case in the country was recorded in 2012 involving a 15-year-old boy from Cebu City, Garin said nothing followed after this.
While there is no travel advisory for the 29 countries affected by Zika, the health chief said it is best for pregnant women to avoid traveling to these places.
The Zika virus has raised questions worldwide about whether pregnant women should avoid infected countries. Chan said delaying travel was something pregnant women can consider but added that if they needed to travel they should take protective measures by covering up and using mosquito repellent.
Brazil has reported some 3,700 suspected cases of microcephaly. Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Castro told Reuters the epidemic was worse than believed because in 80 percent of cases the infected people had no symptoms.
According to Garin, the DOH-run Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) has 1,000 testing kits for Zika virus even before the first case was documented in 2012.
She explained that a suspected dengue patient normally undergoes testing for dengue fever. If the patient is negative, he or she will be examined for chikungunya and then Zika virus.
The testing kits were acquired by the DOH for free from Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention since they are not yet commercially available.
Garin said they requested for more testing kits from the CDC and the agency is expected to send 1,000 more sets in two weeks.
Garin said the RITM is training five other hospitals on how to use the testing kits with the use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines. These are the Southern Philippines Medical Center, Lung Center of the Philippines, Baguio General Hospital, Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center and San Lazaro Hospital.
The DOH is looking into reports that a Filipina in Honduras was infected by the Zika virus.
Lyndon Lee Suy, spokesman for the DOH, said health officials were coordinating with their counterparts in Honduras.
Mobilize barangay leaders – Bongbong
Vice presidential aspirant Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. urged the DOH to tap and mobilize barangay leaders to step up preventive measures against the Zika virus.
“Barangay officials constitute our best line of defense against this threat. With their cooperation and commitment, preventive actions can be implemented down to the grassroots level,” he added.
Marcos, chairman of the Senate committee on local government, noted that barangay officials know better the situation in their respective areas and are directly connected with their constituents who need to be informed of the Zika virus.
He said barangay officials would be effective in leading residents on “search and destroy” efforts to rid their surroundings of stagnant water, which are breeding site of Aedes mosquitoes.
PRC to launch cleanup
Philippine Red Cross (PRC) chairman Richard Gordon urged the public to clean their surroundings regularly to remove breeding sites of mosquitoes.
“Similar to our dengue prevention campaign, the PRC will mobilize its volunteers all over the country to lead and encourage the people to practice cleanliness and remove all possible areas where mosquitoes breed,” Gordon said.
He said the use of mosquito repellent, long sleeves and long pants and mosquito nets can help prevent mosquito bites. – With Perseus Echeminada, Non Alquitran, Mayen Jaymalin, Rudy Santos