In this interconnected world where an outbreak is a flight away, India has reason to fear Zika, the newest mosquito-borne infection threatening the world. First identified in Uganda in 1947, this dengue-like infection was considered non-threatening for decades because it caused mild fever, skin rash, with or without muscle and joint pain in roughly one in five people affected. The current outbreak in South America, from where the disease has spread to 23 countries within a year, changed that. The infection has caused panic because of its suspected link to microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and brain damage.
While it’s still not confirmed that Zika causes microcephaly, research in Brazil has shown that the virus can jump from the mother to the baby in the womb. Since the number of microcephaly cases has gone up 20-fold since Zika was first reported in Brazil last May, governments in affected countries are taking the circumstantial evidence seriously. Brazil, Colombia and Honduras have issued guidelines recommending women not get pregnant this year, while health ministry officials in El Salvador have advised against pregnancy until 2018. With no preventable vaccine, cure or reliable diagnostics, the threat to newborns in India is real. This is the reason why the Union ministry of health has asked pregnant women to avoid travelling to affected countries. Beginning next week, all international airports in India will screen passengers coming from south and central Americas and the Caribbean region for symptoms of the disease.
The infection spreads through the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that causes dengue and chikungunya outbreaks in India every year. Though the traces of the virus were detected across six Indian states in 1952-53, outbreaks haven’t happened and the population’s immunity against this new scourge is likely to be low. With 26 million babies born in India each year, the government and civic authorities need to snap out of their complacency and declare a war against the Aedes aegypti mosquito. This will not only protect thousands of newborns from brain damage but also end the seasonal scourge of dengue and chikungunya.