Zika in India: Are We Really Equipped to Deal With The Virus?

After affecting nearly 150 patients in Rajasthan, Zika has now been detected in Gujarat where a woman has tested positive and is being treated at a state hospital in Ahmedabad. Earlier in 2017, the state officials came under fire for not reporting 3 cases of Zika virus to the World Health Organisation on time.

As per a report in NDTV, the health department of Gujarat has directed hundreds of doctors and medical professionals to screen more than 250 pregnant women with fever, and other people for Zika virus. The state has also been disinfecting public areas to prevent the spread of the mosquitoes carrying the virus.

A team of specialists from ICMR was dispatched to Jaipur in the second week of October to change the insecticides being used to kill mosquitoes as part of an integrated mosquito management programme.

And yet, all this effort retrospectively seems to be too little too late. Experts say if a concerted effort is not made to address India’s mosquito problem, these viruses are here to stay.

Zika in the South?

The Zika virus is spread through mosquito bites from Aedes aegypti

As per a recent research published in the journal Neurology India, scientists have found strains of the Zika virus in other parts of the country as well. The scientists at Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) in Puducherry were analysing 90 patients and found the Zika antibodies present in 14 of them. 4 patients have also tested positive for the dengue antibodies.

These patients were suffering from Guillian-Barre Syndrome (GBS) which is a rare disease in which the body’s immune system begins to attack the nerves.

The scientists stated that there was a possibility that these patients got infected from the Zika virus which further contributed to the GBS disorder.

As per a report in the Live Mint, one of the authors of the study, Deepak Amalnath, said:

"Zika Virus may be present in several areas of the country, but currently we have diagnosed only some cases from Gujarat and Rajasthan. During our research, we found antibodies for Zika virus in GBS patients. The virus may be circulating along with the dengue virus also, however, we did not look for circulation of dengue and Zika."

This was a chance encounter. But, what is causing Zika to spread across India, when it has been contained elsewhere in the world?

India’s Challenge

The occurrence of Zika virus in India makes one thing clear, India’s poor performance on mosquito control.

Prof Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of Centre for Disease, Dynamics, Economics and Policy, and a research scholar from Princeton University, says that the epidemiology of Zika is still unknown, so we are still not sure why has the virus surfaced in India.

But the occurrence of Zika virus in India makes one thing clear, India’s poor performance on mosquito control.

The vector that carries Zika and other arboviruses, the Aedes aegypti mosquito is far more prevalent in India now than in previous decades. This mosquito is responsible for the transmission of dengue and chikungunya and is poorly controlled in urban areas in India.

"India’s densely populated cities allow mosquitoes to thrive in close proximity to people. And with the forest lands being encroached by the growing population, the chances of people getting infected are high." - Prof Ramanan Laxminarayan

The virus majorly infects pregnant women. So the impact is not just on these women but on the the babies born. A small number has the potential to impact a large population. And the fact that there is no vaccine for Zika, makes it even more difficult to contain the virus.

Add to this, the changing weather patterns in India (which in turn affect the pattern of dengue, chikungunya outbreaks) makes it a perfect habitat for the Zika virus.

Also Read: Zika Virus in India: Here’s What You Need to Know About It

Is India Really Equipped to Deal With Zika?

A scrambled effort once the virus is identified is not good enough.

We are nowhere close, says Prof Ramanan.

"The immunity of the Indian population to the virus is not fully understood. So without good public healthcare and sanitation systems, it is difficult to deal with Zika or any other vector borne diseases. "

With no treatment available for Zika, it is critical to prevent the proliferation of the mosquito populations that are able to carry the virus. In addition to increasing surveillance and vector control efforts, the local government bodies must be pressurised to step up action in the states. A scrambled effort once the virus is identified is not good enough.

Also Read: New Image of Zika Virus May Help in Breakthrough to Combat Disease

Don’t Panic and Protect Yourself

Pregnant women should protect themselves from mosquito bites.

Prof Ramanan feels creating panic is not going help.

"Every time there is an outbreak like this, we react to the situation as if it is happening for the first time. Whether it is Zika, dengue or chikungunya, all outbreaks need a good public healthcare system where preventive measures such as the fumigation and insecticide spraying of local spaces are implemented well in advance."

He further advises people to protect themselves against mosquito bites.

"On an individual level, repellants and long sleeved clothing can prevent transmission. Pregnant women, in particular, should protect themselves from mosquito bites and watch out for flu like symptoms such as a low-grade fever, headache,rash, itching, joint pains and body pains etc."

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