In Historic Summit, Latin American Health Ministers OK Zika Alerts for Airports, Borders
At a historic summit in Uruguay, the health ministers of fourteen Latin American nations, alongside representatives from the regional wing of the World Health Organization, agreed on a number of measures to contain the Zika virus pandemic consuming the continent, including a “fast access” Zika information network at airports and border crossings.
The network, Chile’s Publimetroreports, would “orient citizens regarding preventative and control measures currently in development by governments, in agreement with the epidemiological situation.” In addition to this agreement, the nations agreed to launch awareness campaigns in high-risk areas, teaching locals how to rid themselves of still water pools that could serve as breeding grounds for the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
This species of mosquito carries the Zika virus and is found throughout the Americas, with Canada and Chile the only exceptions. As the Southern Hemisphere is currently in the middle of its summer, its nations have been the most affected by Zika, particularly Brazil. Zika is often difficult to diagnose because up to 80 percent of those infected do not show symptoms, and adults who do typically experience mild symptoms like fevers and conjunctivitis. The biggest danger Zika poses is to the unborn; Brazilian doctors have found links between a pregnant mother contracting Zika and her child being born with microcephaly, a disorder in which an infant’s skull is too small for his or her brain, causing severe neurological damage. Experts are also studying a potential link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a debilitating muscular disorder.
Representatives of fourteen nations attended the high-level meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay, including the members of the Mercosur trade block and representatives of affected nations in the Caribbean and Central America. Of the nations invited to attend, only Guyana did not send a representative. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil called for such a meeting last week, demanding all Mercosur nations cooperate to eradicate the virus before it causes significant economic damage to the region (some airlines and cruise companies have already begun to offer refunds to pregnant passengers who choose to cancel their trips to the region). “In my [call for a meeting] I proposed that we also have a cooperative action in the fight against the Zika virus,” Rousseff said, adding that it appeared Brazil was leading the charge in developing a model to fight Zika. “The majority of countries are adopting a model similar to ours of using the armed forces as one of the organizational vectors in the fight to eradicate breeding grounds [for mosquitos] and the elimination of collections of water,” she said.
“What worries the ministers is the speed with which the Zika virus infection has spread, as it has reached 26 nations in less than a year,” Carissa Etienne, the head of the regional Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), said at the meeting. To that end, educational and awareness campaigns regarding limiting the spread of Aedes aegypti were paramount in solutions discussed. While Brazil has dispatched thousands of government workers to fumigate high-population venues, like those built for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Colombian Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria told reporters “fumigation is not an exit” and that the nations did not discuss “supranational fumigation.”
Instead, an easy-access international information network will be developed for airports and seaports, as well as for the border. Security in such places will thus have the information necessary to identify a Zika patient or any threat of the development of an Aedes aegypti spawning pool in the area.
The group also agreed on “collective purchases of medications at high cost,” intended to lower the costs and allow affected nations greater access to the medication and medical equipment necessary to treat infants with microcephaly and Zika patients. This measure is especially important in the context of the complete collapse of a number of the region’s health care systems, most notable Venezuela.
In late January, Venezuela’s National Pharmaceutical Federation called the current medical situation there a “humanitarian crisis,” releasing a list of more than 150 medications that Venezuelans have no access to whatsoever. Medications on the list range from common painkillers to expensive cancer and AIDS treatment drugs.
Venezuela has also not properly documented most of its Zika cases, Colombian Minister Gaviria alleged this week. Venezuela has “no systematic reporting of the data” on Zika cases, Gaviria said, accusing the socialist government there of hiding a significant number of cases. Venezuela recently released statistics claiming only 4,700 recorded Zika cases nationwide, compared to 20,000 in neighboring Colombia.