3 preparation tips to head off 'explosive' Zika pandemic

Warning of the "explosive pandemic potential" of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, health officials said the United States and other countries need to fund and enact several measures to try to head off spread of the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the virus is spread to humans by mosquito bites and typically causes symptoms of fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis.

The World Health Organization said the first case was reported in Brazil in May 2015. Since then, it has spread throughout Brazil  and to 22 other countries and territories in the region. The agency announced this morning it would convene an emergency meeting on Monday to determine whether the outbreak is a global health emergency.

Meanwhile, a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) piece notes that the viral infection itself rarely causes serious diseases or fatalities. But there appear to be connections with neurological and autoimmune-like illness, primarily Guillain-Barré syndrome. And "most concerning" is the likelihood that the virus causes microcephaly to fetuses in utero, especially in Brazil, according to the article.

Authors Daniel R. Lucey, M.D., of Georgetown University School of Medicine and Lawrence O. Gostin, who works with the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown University Law Center, recommend that healthcare organizations take the following actions to prevent the spread of the virus:

  • Work with public health officials to create campaigns that educate the public about avoiding mosquito exposure
  • Train health workers to spot and report Zika virus infections and associated neurological, autoimmune and congenital malformation cases
  • Follow clinical guidelines to manage infected individuals

The article also recommended public health officials control the mosquito population, issue travel advisories, declare the outbreak a national public health emergency and accelerate research and development efforts. The authors noted that a Zika vaccine is probably three to 10 years away even with accelerated research.

Meanwhile, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told USA Today that the U.S. would likely be able to contain any Zika outbreaks by controlling mosquito populations.

"The last thing we want is a repeat of Ebola, where we saw preventable deaths in the United States and globally," Gostin told USA Today.

The JAMA article comes in the same month that the Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future recently recommended a global investment of $4.5 billion per year to better prevent, detect and prepare for possible pandemics, including $1 billion to accelerate research and development of diagnostic tools, treatments and other medical products.

The threat of a pandemic is so great that an offshore insurance company is now offering hospitals a new kind of liability coverage to indemnify them against a pandemic or similar outbreaks.

To learn more:
- read the JAMA article
- see the USA Today article
- here's the announcement from WHO
- check out information about the virus from the CDC