There have not been any cases of the Zika pandemic reported in India yet, but health authorities are nervous for several reasons, not least of which is that India has already dealt with Zika in the past, logging some of the oldest known cases of infection.
The current outbreak is emanating from South America, which makes the threat to India seem relatively remote. The BBC notes that “so far, Asia is reckoned to be Zika-free,” with all samples taken from screenings of the Indian population by the National Institute of Virology in Pune testing negative for the virus.
But Zika was one of the viruses the National Institute of Virology was founded to combat in 1952, long before it seemed like a serious threat to anyone. The origins of the virus lie with monkeys in the Zika jungles of Uganda, hence the name. Tests by the Institute in 1952 found “significant numbers” of people in India had been exposed. The Indian medical community published a paper on Zika the year before the first officially-recognized human case was recorded in Nigeria in 1954.
As with other regions affected by the outbreak, Zika in India was formerly regarded as a very minor problem, because its symptoms were so mild. Today, Indian health authorities are worried that it might actually remain “endemic” in the population, as the BBC puts it, because it often goes undetected. Only today, in the current outbreak, have doctors learned Zika can cause birth defects when pregnant women are infected, or a devastating reaction in a small percentage of infected adults.
India’s concerns are exacerbated by recent outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya, spread by the same mosquitoes that carry Zika. As if a dengue outbreak is not bad enough on its own, health experts warn that Zika may follow in dengue’s footsteps, with dengue survivors exceptionally vulnerable to Zika infection.
The Economic Times of India worries that poor public hygiene in India gives the infection-carrying mosquito ample breeding grounds, and the Indian medical community is not well-prepared to deal with Zika. There are few testing facilities, no screening procedures in place for travelers, and no action plan for handling an outbreak. India’s doctors are reportedly preparing themselves by chatting online with experienced Zika-fighters.
The Indian medical community seems divided on the Zika threat, with some doctors quoted by the Economic Times dismissing it as a remote problem they can control if it appears, while others say the dangerous strain will “definitely” be brought back by Indian travelers to South America eventually, and complaining about inadequate preparations.
“We’ve known mosquitoes are responsible for chikungunya and dengue but are cavalier in tackling their breeding pools. Now, Zika joins this list and we seem clueless how to tackle it,” writes the Economic Times.
One sign of unease in India comes from automaker Tata Motors, which felt obliged to change the name of its heavily-promoted new model, the Zica. The decision came too late for the Auto Expo in New Delhi this week, but a new name is expected to be announced shortly.