Fearing an outbreak, India is issuing a travel alert on Saturday asking pregnant women to avoid travel to the 24 countries and territories where the Zika virus is suspected to cause microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and brain damage.
Each year, 26 million babies are born in India, which puts several thousands of them at risk from getting infected and developing abnormalities in the womb.
Unlike the influenza viruses such as H1N1 (swine flu), Zika infection does not spread directly from people to people. Transmission occurs only when a mosquito gets infected after feeding on an infected person and spreads the infection to other people it feeds on.
Isolating infected travelers with symptoms makes it possible to break the chain of infection from spreading across continents if infected people are stopped at the borders and treated in isolation.
Beginning next week, all international airports in India will have signs asking passengers coming from south and central Americas and the Caribbean to report symptoms of fever, body rash, conjunctivitis and joint and muscle pain within two weeks of travel. In south Asia, Sri Lanka has begun screening visitors from affected countries.
Asia spared so far
Zika, which was first detected in Uganda in 1947, is not new to the tropical parts of Asia but has not caused any big outbreaks over close to 70 years. Apart from Samoa, no country in Asia-Pacific region has reported localised transmission during the current outbreak.
Though the traces of the zika virus were detected in people across six states India in 1952-53 , no outbreaks have occurred in India, which means the population’s immunity against this new virus is likely to be low.
Zika has not been reported in Singapore, China and Malaysia, but it is found in the Asia-Pacific region, from where it has travelled to other countries. Thailand detected its first case in 2012 and since then, has reported an average of five cases a year, including one this year.
It was first reported in Micronesia in 2007, in French Polynesia in 2013, and since then, in several Pacific Island countries including Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. New Zealand has had nine cases, all among travellers to the Pacific Islands.
No vaccine, no cure
While there are vaccines that protect against yellow fever and recently, dengue, Zika has no vaccine or cure, which has led to the virus “spreading explosively” and becoming a threat that could infect up to 4 million people in the Americas, the World Health Organization said Friday.
It is not scientifically proven that Zika causes microcephaly, but research in Brazil has found the virus can cross from the infected mother to the baby through the placenta. Close to 4,000 newborns are affected, with the numbers rising sharply. In 2015, 3,174 cases of microcephaly were reported in Brazil, and by January 16, the number had gone up to 3,893.
Many affected countries in the Americas have advised women not to get pregnant till the outbreak is over and declared a war in the aedes egyti mosquito, which also causes dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. Brazil is the worst hit and has deployed more than 200,000 troops to kill mosquitoes.
There is no cure and treatment involves drinking fluids to prevent dehydration and having paracetamol to lower fever and pain.
Union health minister JP Nadda set up a joint-monitoring committee to track the outbreak globally. Apart from National Institute of Virology (NIV), six more labs are being equipped to test suspected cases for Zika. Pune’s NIV is already started random screening to monitor traces of the virus in the community, but all the samples have tested negative.
Countries and territories with active local transmission, which means mosquitoes there are infected with Zika virus and are now spreading it to people.
# Dominican Republic
# El Salvador
# French Guiana
# Puerto Rico
# Saint Martin
# US Virgin Islands
# Cape Verde
Source: Centers for Disease Control
Four reasons to fear Zika
# Strongly suspected to cause birth defects and neurological problems in newborns
# High pandemic potential in India because the infecting agent is the aedes egypti mosquito, which also spreads dengue and chikengunya
# No population immunity against the virus
# No vaccines, no cure