The cluster of Zika virus outbreaks and the associated neurological disorders has caused global concern; particularly in tropical and sub-tropical areas.
HPF’s Dr Viliami Puloka offers a perspective for consideration by health promoters working to prevent disease and for the communities under threat.
Communities can be empowered with information on prevention of the spread of disease and on how to remain healthy in order to fight the virus, should they become infected, he says.
On 1 February 2016 the World Health Organisation declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) regarding the high incidence of abnormally small brains and other neurological disorders in babies born to mothers infected with the Zika virus.
Much discussion and concern has resulted from the WHO’s decision.
Health promotion will play a key role in minimising the effects of Zika on Pacific peoples. Being well, being informed and taking precautions to reduce exposure to the disease-carrying mosquito will all contribute to communities’ resistance to the virus and its associated issues, says Health Promotion Forum’s Senior Health Promotion Strategist Dr Viliami Puloka.
Here in the Pacific region the rainy season – when mosquitoes are most prevalent – has just begun. We have recently had new cases of the Zika virus declared in Samoa and Tonga. One case of Guillain-Barré was identified in Waikato and linked to the Zika virus. The patient was a man who had recently arrived from Tonga, however, and it was considered to represent no risk of an outbreak here. This is because the virus is spread via a mosquito that is not found in New Zealand’s colder climate. Meanwhile the virus has been present in French Polynesia for some time. There, at least 40 cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome have been associated with the virus.
Zika was first identified in Brazil in May 2015. Since then babies born to mothers infected with the virus have been found to have a higher incidence of neurological disorders, the main one of which has been abnormally small brains – or microencephaly. While it has not been proven that the disorders are a direct result of the virus, this is strongly suspected. In recent days another possible association has been suggested: the use of an antilarval chemical included in the drinking water of the affected residents in Brazil.
Health authorities in New Zealand and the Pacific are putting in place protection measures and public policies to prevent the spread of Zika virus, however Dr Puloka, who is responsible for the HPF’s Pacific portfolio, points out that communities have an equally vital role to play. Minimising and modifying potential breeding sites is one way in which communities can act to prevent the spread of the Zika, he says. Residents are advised to empty, clean or cover containers that can hold water. This includes receptacles like buckets, flower pots or tyres. According to Dr Puloka it is also common practice to have a layer of oil on the top of the water in a septic tank. This prevents the reproduction of the mosquitoes, whose pupae need oxygen from above the water to survive.
He suspects that immunity to mosquito-borne diseases may offer hope to those Pacific island nations to have recently seen the arrival of the Zika virus. “The mosquito that carries the Zika virus is the same one that carries dengue fever, chikungunya and yellow fever,” he says. “People of the Pacific islands have been exposed to these mosquitoes for many years and have developed a level of resistance to those diseases.” This contrasts starkly with the situation in Brazil, where the people had previously not been exposed to those mosquitoes or their diseases.
Other precautions – where practicable – include using insect repellent, wearing clothes (preferably light-coloured) that cover as much of the body as possible and using physical barriers such as screens, closed doors and windows.
During outbreaks, health authorities may also advise spraying of insecticides.
Dr Puloka’s advice to communities threatened by the Zika virus is that now, more than ever, it is important to be well, be informed and take the necessary precautions to minimise the risk of being bitten by the mosquito that carries the disease.