India to step up Zika virus watch as WHO warns of ‘explosive’ spread

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Jan 30, 2016 11:28 PM IST

The Union health ministry on Friday constituted a technical committee to formulate travel guidelines for those coming to or from Zika virus-affected countries with the World Health Organisation (WHO) raising fears about its “explosive” spread.

The government swung into action on Friday against the threat posed by Zika and set up a technical committee to formulate guidelines for pregnant women travelling to or from parts of the world affected by the virus.

A government campaign poster informing about Zika virus symptoms is seen at the maternity ward of a hospital in Guatemala City.(REUTERS)
A government campaign poster informing about Zika virus symptoms is seen at the maternity ward of a hospital in Guatemala City.(REUTERS)

No Zika case has been reported in the country so far and the government’s strategy is meant to prevent the virus being carried from abroad as was done to counter Ebola earlier. All major airports will be asked to put up signboards asking passengers coming from the affected countries in Central as well as South America and the Caribbean to report to a doctor if they experience symptoms such as fever, rashes, conjunctivitis, nausea, headache, bodyache, etc.

The transmission of the virus mostly takes place when the infected person has a fever. India needs to focus on stopping the entry of the virus in the country because of its enormous childbirth rate as Zika affects foetuses the most.

Read | Along came a virus: Here’s why people are panicking about Zika

“The technical committee should be ready with the guidelines by Saturday, and the airports will have signboards up by next week. We are focusing on pregnant women as the virus seems to be affecting babies inside the womb,” Dr Jagdish Prasad, director general health services, told HT.

Union health minister JP Nadda, who convened a high-level emergency meeting with his team of medical experts on Friday morning, also constituted a joint monitoring committee that will review the situation arising out of the spread of Zika in other countries on a weekly basis and advise on steps to be taken.

Read | Not just mosquitoes: 2 cases hint at sexual transmission of Zika

The country’s top medical research body, the Indian Council of Medical Research, has been asked to strengthen six more laboratories to screen samples.

“Currently, they have one lab in the National Institute of Virology, and we have asked them to keep six more ready as numbers in India are huge and one lab will not be enough if there is an emergency situation,” Dr Prasad said.

The Pune-based National Institute of Virology is already screening samples for Zika virus. So far, none of the samples screened has returned positive.

The high-level meeting was called after the World Health Organization on Thursday announced it would hold an emergency meeting next week to decide whether the virus outbreak should be declared an international health emergency, given that it’s “spreading explosively” in parts of the world.

“We are focusing on especially strengthening the surveillance system,” Nadda said.

Read | Countries with Aedes mosquito, including India, on Zika virus radar

The Aedes Aegypti mosquito which transmits dengue also transmits Zika. Nadda emphasised that there will be increased focus on prevention to control the spread of the Aedes mosquito that breeds in clean water.

The virus was first detected in 1947, and for decades caused only mild infections. However, it has worried experts this time as it is suspected to be causing birth defects in babies.

“Once it enters the community then it will be difficult to contain; the best way is to prevent it from coming in like we did in the case of Ebola,” said a senior doctor from the department of microbiology, AIIMS.

Watch | All you need to know about the Zika virus

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    Rhythma Kaul works as an assistant editor at Hindustan Times. She covers health and related topics, including ministry of health and family welfare, government of India.

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