Brazil Calls In American Experts as Zika Panic Grows

AP Photo/Felipe Dana
AP Photo/Felipe Dana

The Health Ministry of Brazil has requested that American virologists travel to Zika-affected areas and hold high-level meetings with their medical experts, as they collaborate to find a vaccine to prevent the disease from spreading further.

Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Castro is scheduled to speak with American Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell on Wednesday to propose that the United States send disease control experts to Brazil to cooperate with local medical authorities. Among the topics of discussion will be controlling the mosquito population in Brazil, researching how the virus spreads (particularly to unborn children), and developing a Zika vaccine.

The Zika virus is spread through bites from the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which makes its home in all countries of the Western Hemisphere except Chile and Canada. As Brazil is currently in the middle of its summer season, it has become the epicenter of what the National Institutes of Health have deemed a Zika “pandemic.”

Brazilian newspaper O Globo notes that Brazilian and American scholars have already been collaborating on a similar project: a Dengue vaccine. Like Zika, Dengue – along with Chikungunya virus and Yellow Fever – are transmitted through Aedes aegypti bites. “The idea is to take advantage of an existing partnership between the Butantan Institute and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) studying a vaccine against dengue,” O Globo reports, adding that at least one Brazilian researcher, Pedro Vasconcelos, met Tuesday with virologists to discuss the response to Zika.

Reuters notes that Castro also announced that American technical experts will be landing in Brazil on February 11 “to hold a high level meeting where they will determine the first steps and timetable for developing this vaccine.”

“I bring a word of hope, strength, force. We, Brazilian society, we are able to overcome this mosquito,” Castro said in remarks Tuesday. His statement varied dramatically in tone from comments made last week, in which he declared Brazil was “badly losing the battle against the mosquito.” World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Christian Lindmeier described his attitude as “fatalistic,” though the WHO subsequently declared Zika a public health emergency.

American medical experts have already made a major contribution to the understanding of Zika: on Tuesday, doctors in Texas confirmed the first known case of a person contracting Zika through sexual contact. The patient in question had not traveled to a Zika-infected area, but had had sexual contact with a person who had recently traveled to Venezuela and had tested positive for Zika. Experts note that medical literature has catalogued only one known case of the presence of Zika in human semen.

Venezuela has become a problem spot for the fight against Zika in Latin America due to the government’s lack of transparency in documenting cases. While Brazil and Colombia have enhanced efforts to keep track of Zika cases, Venezuelan health officials have not made public their data set on Zika. Colombian Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria has condemned Venezuela for having “no systematic reporting of the data,” calling it a “serious problem.” Venezuela claims to have documented only 4,700 Zika cases, while neighboring Colombia has catalogued over 20,000.

Brazil has already reached out to experts from Africa, where researchers have spent the past two years rapidly developing technology to combat the deadly Ebola virus. A team of six researchers from Senegal are currently working in Recife, a town where an estimated 100,000 people have been exposed to Zika. The group is working to modify a portable, 15-minute Ebola test to diagnose Zika, instead. “Ebola taught us that it is possible to detect the beginning of an epidemic, but not to foresee its end,” Dr. Amadou Alpha Sall, the head of the team, said.

American experts have a vested interest in developing a rapid solution to the blossoming Zika pandemic. Most scientific evidence indicates the virus will find its way to the United States as early as April, when the weather in the southern parts of the country becomes significantly more hot and humid. The Pan-American Health Organization, a regional wing of the WHO, has predicted Zika will surface in every nation of the Americas save the two without significant Aedes populations.

“We need to really be on the lookout. … That involves having really good information systems from the CDC. It means training doctors. The last thing we want is a repeat of Ebola, where we saw preventable deaths in the United States and globally,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, told USA TodayGostin is the co-author of a paper in which he predicts that Zika has “explosive pandemic potential” and urgent action is required to prevent major devastation in the region.