Lay people might wonder if the spread of the Zika virus - which causes mild flu-like or no symptoms - deserves to be rated a global public health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO). And does United States President Barack Obama require as much as US$1.8 billion (S$2.5 billion) in emergency funds for a non-deadly, mosquito- borne illness when dengue poses a larger risk to more people? Like malaria and the West Nile virus, which are also spread by mosquitoes, dengue can lead to deaths from medical complications. The truth is the response to such threats often hinges on one's vantage point.
In Latin America where Zika cases are surging, there are profound concerns because of suspected links with birth defects and a neurological disorder, as well as the looming economic cost of mounting healthcare, lost productivity and weak tourism. Recession-hit Brazil, which is counting on perhaps half a million visitors for the Olympic Games in August, would feel the pain sharply should a Zika panic put off travellers. That in effect would be punishing it twice over, despite insufficient evidence to support some medical fears. Yet to downplay the risks would be monumentally irresponsible.
High among the worrisome list of risks is the global spread of contagious diseases. That justifies a more vigilant public health approach everywhere than is evident now. Since the discovery of the Zika virus in Uganda almost seven decades ago, it has been also spotted in far-flung corners like French Polynesia and parts of this region (in small numbers) like Cambodia, East Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Here, the Health Ministry and National Environment Agency think it's "inevitable that there will be imported cases of Zika", given the nation's hub status.
Transnational contagion calls for joint action. However, weak disease surveillance and underdeveloped health systems in some countries will continue to pose threats to a world trying to cope with over 300 contagious illnesses that have surfaced since Zika was discovered. Designating Zika an international public health emergency could lead to better guidance for countries that appear to be clutching at straws, like El Salvador which is asking its women to not get pregnant for two years while the disease is rampant.
WHO appears to have learnt from its failings during the Ebola outbreak and is taking a more proactive approach to international mobilisation and communication. It had earlier relied on the deluded "hope that the (Ebola) crisis could be managed by good diplomacy rather than by scaling up emergency action", as an advisory panel pointed out. Given the high stakes of potential pandemics, the agency needs to be at the forefront of global efforts to coordinate health monitoring, Zika research work and vector control.
This article was first published on February 11, 2016.
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