Brazil's Rousseff calls for Latin American Zika fight
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called Wednesday, January 27, for Latin America to launch a region-wide fight against the Zika virus, blamed for a surge in brain-damaged babies, as alarm rose over the world's latest health scare.
Brazil has been the country hardest hit by the outbreak of the mosquito-borne virus, which is blamed for a sharp rise in infants born with microcephaly, or abnormally small heads.
The outbreak is particularly concerning officials as the country prepares to host the Olympics, which will bring hundreds of thousands of travelers from around the world to Rio de Janeiro in August.
But Brazil is far from alone: Zika has spread to some 20 countries in Latin America and the World Health Organization (WHO) warns it is expected to spread to every country in the Americas except Canada and Chile.
Nicaragua confirmed its first two cases Wednesday.
Denmark and Switzerland meanwhile joined a growing number of European countries to report Zika infections among travelers returning from Latin America.
The returning travelers in those two countries were not pregnant and the disease has not been transmitted within Europe or the United States.
US President Barack Obama called for faster research on the quick-moving virus, urging better diagnostic tests and the development of vaccines and treatments.
There is currently no specific treatment for Zika and no way to prevent it other than avoiding mosquito bites.
Rousseff said she had asked a summit of the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to launch "cooperative action in the fight against the Zika virus."
Zika originated in Africa and also exists in Asia and the Pacific, but has not been associated with microcephaly there. The virus first came to prominence in Brazil in October.
In Brazil, cases of microcephaly – which can cause brain damage or death in babies – have surged from 163 a year on average to more than 3,718 suspected cases since the outbreak, according to new figures from the health ministry.
Sixty-eight (68) of the babies have died.
Fearing a generation blighted by high rates of microcephaly, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica have all warned women to avoid getting pregnant.
In Colombia, some 100 babies have been born with microcephaly since the outbreak began.
Rousseff announced a meeting of regional health ministers Tuesday, January 26, in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo to address the outbreak.
The meeting will be held under the auspices of South American regional bloc MERCOSUR, but will be open to all Latin American and Caribbean countries, she said.
CELAC will later organize its own health ministers' meeting.
Rousseff vowed to wage a "house-by-house fight" against Zika, echoing an announcement by her health minister Monday, January 25, that 200,000 soldiers would be deployed to go door to door in a mosquito control campaign to wipe out breeding grounds.
Around the region, health officials have launched fumigation campaigns to reduce mosquito populations and clean-ups to eliminate the standing water where the insects breed.
Rio de Janeiro has vowed to protect Olympic athletes and fans by intensifying inspections of all venues and eradicating any mosquito concentrations.
Health watchdogs in a string of European countries said they had recorded Zika cases dating back to as early as March 2015.
The Netherlands confirmed 10 cases, Britain 5, Italy and Portugal 4, and Spain two, all among people returning from South America.
A woman in the Swedish capital Stockholm was also diagnosed with the virus in July 2015 and recovered, officials said.
Zika causes flu-like symptoms and a rash, and is so mild that it goes undetected in 70% to 80% of cases.
But it has been linked to some disturbing complications.
Besides the evidence of a risk of birth defects in infected pregnant women's babies, health officials have also reported Zika patients going on to develop Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing weakness and sometimes paralysis.
Most patients recover, but the syndrome is sometimes deadly.
The WHO cautions that no definitive link between Zika and fetal brain damage has been proven, though director general Margaret Chan called the possibility "extremely worrisome." – Eugenia Logiuratto, AFP / Rappler.com