Bogotá, February 23, 2016 (PAHO / WHO) -- A group of experts convened by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO / WHO) is working in Colombia this week to support the country's efforts to respond to the outbreak of Zika virus. Colombian health authorities report that nearly 37,000 people have been affected, including 6,300 pregnant women.
"This is the first mission with various technical components to support countries in response to Zika virus," said Pilar Ramon-Pardo, PAHO's advisor on Clinical Management of Epidemic Diseases who is coordinating the mission.
The mission, which ends Friday, is aimed at exchanging experiences on epidemiological surveillance and treatment of cases of Zika virus, and to study the issues surrounding possible neurological complications associated with the virus, such as Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). Experts are also analyzing and monitoring Colombia's current surveillance of pregnant women in case of possible cases of microcephaly. "This mission is also in line with PAHO's strategy to enhance the capacity of countries to respond to Zika virus in the Americas, Ramon-Pardo added.
Zika, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, is a new virus in the Americas. Since Brazil reported the first cases of local transmission in May 2015, the virus has spread to 29 countries and territories in the Americas, a situation that is compounded by the possible association with GBS cases and microcephaly.
Experts participating in the mission include Carlos Brito, medical director of the Research Center Aggeu Magalhães Recife, Pernambuco (Brazil), one of the areas most affected by Zika, and Ricardo Ximenes of the Federal University of Pernambuco, who are participating in the research being conducted in Brazil to learn more about the virus.
Other experts include Rafael Arroyo González, head of the Neurology Department of the Quiron Clinic in Madrid; Cristina Domingo, a virology specialist of Center for Biological Threats and Special Pathogens (ZBS-1) of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin; and Carlos Rugilo, neuroradiologist and head of the Magnetic Resonance Service in the Garrahan Pediatric Hospital of Buenos Aires. PAHO experts in laboratories, health services, and clinical management of cases are also accompanying the Colombia mission.
Colombia's Vice Minister of Health, Fernando Ruiz, said, "We have a plan of action that began long before the arrival of cases of Zika in Colombia. We also work with our central laboratory; we issue guidelines for handling, treatment and prevention, in addition to developing contingency plans and risk communication activities." To develop strategies with municipalities, authorities tour the country to coordinate actions with the departments and localities under the initiative "La vuelta a Colombia," or "Around Colombia."
During the mission, experts are meeting with officials and technical experts from the Ministry of Health, visiting the laboratory of the National Institute of Health and some are traveling to areas of the country where cases of Zika virus have been reported.
PAHO has developed a strategy to help countries mitigate the impact of Zika virus, through strengthening their capabilities to detect the introduction and spread of the virus, reducing mosquito populations, ensuring the necessary health services, and communicating effectively with the public about risks and prevention measures.
Aedes mosquitoes, the main vector transmitting zika, are present in every country in the region except Canada and continental Chile. To prevent or slow the spread of Zika virus, as well as dengue and chikungunya, which are also transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, PAHO recommends the following:
•Mosquito populations should be reduced and controlled by eliminating breeding sites. Containers that can hold even small amounts of water where mosquitoes can breed, such as buckets, bottle tops, flower pots or tires, should be emptied, cleaned or covered to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in them. This will help to control. Other measures include using larvicide to treat standing waters.
•All people living in or visiting areas with Aedes mosquitoes should protect themselves from mosquito bites by using insect repellent; wearing clothes (preferably light-colored) that cover as much of the body as possible; using physical barriers such as screens, closed doors and windows; and sleeping under mosquito nets, especially during the day when Aedes mosquitoes are most active.
•Pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid mosquito bites. Although Zika typically causes only mild symptoms, outbreaks in Brazil have coincided with a marked increase in microcephaly—or unusually small head size—in newborns. Women planning to travel to areas where Zika is circulating should consult a healthcare provider before traveling and upon return. Women who believe they have been exposed to Zika virus should consult with their healthcare provider for close monitoring of their pregnancy.
PAHO is working with its member countries to strengthen vector control, communicate the risks of Zika and promote prevention, and establish or improve surveillance of both Zika virus infections and suspected complications, such as microcephaly, Guillain-Barré syndrome, and other autoimmune and neurological disorders.