India vulnerable to the spread of zika virus but there is no need to panic

The spread of the zika virus in certain countries of the world has caused enormous concern and has led to an avoidable scare in the national and international media.  Dr. Vivekanand Jha, Executive Director of the George Institute for Global Health India, feels that there is no need to panic and provides answers to some frequently asked questions on the zika episode, especially relating to managing vulnerability in countries like India.  

Q 1. How vulnerable is India to the Zika virus?  

A. India is certainly vulnerable, and the absence of a proper surveillance/tracking mechanism, coupled by the fact that vector control is poor, rural population is not well-informed and lots of pregnancies are managed by non-doctors, there is certainly a degree of vulnerability. The threat could worsen during and after monsoons when the mosquito population rises.

Q 2. What are the repercussions of the spread of the virus in India?

A. Since India has the mosquito responsible for spread of the virus (Aedes aegypti), the same one that causes Dengue and Chikungunya, if an infected individual comes here, infection can be  spread by mosquitoes biting this person, acquiring the virus and then passing it on to those who are bitten subsequently. Since many parts of India have poor mosquito control, these areas remain vulnerable if an infected individual reaches those regions and gets exposed to mosquitoes.

Q. 3. What are the preventive methods that the Government of India should take? 

A. The government can make all subjects travelling into India from regions where this infection has been reported that they could be potentially infected. Might be difficult to implement, but all of these subjects could be advised to protect themselves against mosquito bites using one of the many preventive methods, like using mosquito nets, staying indoors with netted windows and doors, use repellent creams/sprays. Additional methods for vector control are the same as recommended for other mosquito-borne infections.

Q. 4. What do you think the international agencies like WHO should be doing? 

A. After the recent Ebola outbreak, the WHO clearly sees the importance of a fast response. Zika virus is not lethal, but has been linked to small heads in some babies born to mothers in regions with high disease transmission and a neurological disease that causes nerve and muscle weakness. In terms of control it does appear that the WHO can do well to track the disease properly, educate the people and governments, promote mosquito control programs, and step up research. It is certainly fast tracking vaccine development program, but this is likely to take time.

Q. 5  How should pregnant women protect themselves?

A.  At this time there is no Zika in India and hence no precautions are needed. If cases are reported, pregnant women should do all they can to protect themselves against mosquito bites as described earlier, get rid of mosquitoes around the areas they live and work. An extreme step for those contemplating pregnancy is to postpone it till the outbreak is contained.