On February 1st 2016, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Margaret Chan, declared the Zika virus outbreak as a ‘Health Emergency of International Concern’. In her statement, Dr. Chan cited concern for babies born with microcephaly to mothers infected during pregnancy and the development of a serious neurological syndrome in adults, called Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS) following Zika infection. Within the space of nine days, Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies (The UWI) responded to the virus’ growing threat to the Caribbean region; he announced the creation of a Regional Zika Task Force to help guide the Caribbean’s response.
On November 21st 2016 the Director of the WHO’s emergency program announced that Zika would no longer be classified as a ‘global health emergency’. The organisation made clear that the ‘health emergency’ designation was needed in February because so little was known about Zika and its association with serious neurological problems, including congenital brain defects. The speed of research on Zika, and the level of cooperation exhibited among laboratories across the globe, has been remarkable and the WHO felt sufficient proof now existed for the causal relationship between Zika and neurological defects, and that the global health emergency could now be lifted in favour of a stance that “Zika is here to stay and the WHO response to Zika is here to stay”. The virus will therefore rejoin its stable mates Dengue, Yellow Fever and Chikungunya, as a serious mosquito borne illness for which a strong programmatic response is warranted, but no longer an emergency response.
The UWI Zika Task Force will take its lead from the new WHO stance and focus its efforts on deepening its collaboration with the public health agencies and ministries of the Caribbean to strengthen the programmatic response to Zika. The UWI has taken the lead in the area of GBS monitoring, by developing a Caribbean Zika GBS database. This was rolled out to Caribbean neurologists and critical care physicians in November, 2016 with the assistance of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO). The UWI is also establishing a sophisticated monitoring system with the assistance of a ZikAction consortium grant to track birth defects or developmental abnormalities in early childhood in suspected cases of congenital Zika infection.
The public education campaign by the Task Force and its initiatives for mosquito eradication will continue under the new WHO dispensation, since these will benefit not just Zika, but the related flavi viruses carried by the same mosquito species.
The Regional Zika Task Force wishes you a happy and a safe holiday season. Please consult our community outreach initiative – the ‘Zero Zika Zone’ – to keep your homes and families safe from mosquito borne diseases.
Professor Clive Landis - Chair, The Regional Zika Task Force