Brazilian Soldiers to Be Deployed in "Mega" Zika Prevention Drive

Zika Virus

Damien Gayle and Agencies, The Guardian, February 16, 2016

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilian soldiers are to be deployed in towns and cities in a one-day push to raise awareness of mosquito breeding grounds amid the Zika virus outbreak.

Officials and 220,000 soldiers aimed to visit 3m homes in more than 350 locations on Saturday, handing out leaflets and giving advice on how to stop the spread of the Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that carries the virus.

It is part of a “mega operation” planned by the Brazilian government to eliminate potential mosquito breeding sites just months before athletes and fans travel to the country for the Olympic Games.

Brazil is at the centre of an outbreak of the Zika virus, which is believed to be the cause of a sudden surge in cases of a hitherto rare neurological birth defect known as microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and suffer incomplete brain development.

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The World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned pregnant women to avoid travelling to more than two dozen countries and territories in the Americas where outbreaks are active. In the UK, Public Health England and the National Travel Health Network and Centre have advised pregnant women to consider avoiding travel to South and Central America and the Caribbean. All aircraft returning to the UK from affected countries are being sprayed with insecticide.

Brazil’s health minister insisted on Friday that authorities were “absolutely sure” Zika was connected to microcephaly, though it has yet to be scientifically proven.

Marcelo Castro told the Associated Press that the half-year gap between the virus outbreak in South America’s largest country and the spike in reported cases of microcephaly was not a coincidence.

“We are absolutely sure of the causal relationship between microcephaly and Zika,” he said, adding that government researchers were unanimous in their assessment. “It has nothing to do with the environment, nothing to do with race, nothing to do with gender.”

Castro admitted, however, that more research was needed to determine whether other factors may have also played a role in the rise in microcephaly.

In response to criticism that Brazil was being too slow to confirm cases of microcephaly, Castro said the federal government was pushing states and local governments to speed up tests on newborns.

Since October, 5,079 suspected cases of microcephaly have been reported, according to figures released on Friday. Of those, 462 cases had been confirmed while 765 had been discarded. Of the confirmed cases, 41 have been connected to Zika.

Previously, Brazil had reported about 150 cases of microcephaly a year. Clinical and preliminary laboratory evidence has shown that many mothers of children with microcephaly were infected with Zika during their pregnancies.

A senior WHO official said she expected the suspected link between the Zika virus and two neurological disorders, microcephaly in babies and Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults, to be established within weeks.

Marie-Paule Kieny, the WHO’s assistant director general, told a news briefing in Geneva on Friday: “We have a few more weeks to be sure to demonstrate causality, but the link between Zika and Guillain-Barré is highly probable.”

She said it would take at least 18 months to start clinical trials of potential vaccines on humans, adding: “Two vaccine candidates seem to be more advanced: a DNA vaccine from the US National Institutes of Health; and an inactivated product from Bharat Biotech, in India.”

Kieny said 15 companies or groups had been identified as possible participants in the search for inoculations, but different types of possible vaccines – such as using live or deactivated virus, or DNA vaccines – may lead to differences in the timing on their development.

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Castro said keeping homes free of mosquitoes was the most effective way to contain the virus until a vaccine was developed.

“In this last 30 years we never managed to defeat the mosquito,” he said. “But this time we’re obligated to prevail because the mosquito has become much more dangerous.”

President Dilma Rousseff planned to travel to Rio de Janeiro, host of the Olympics in August, to oversee Saturday’s prevention drive. She also planned to dispatch cabinet members to each of the country’s 27 states.

Castro cited the Amazonian state of Acre, which managed to slash the incidence of dengue to 350 cases last year from more than 30,000, as an example of the key role played by communities. Dengue is transmitted by the same mosquito behind Zika.

“If we’re asking society to get involved, we have to be the first ones to set an example,” Castro said. “Without them our fight will be difficult, and with them it will be difficult but not impossible.”

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This article was written by Damien Gayle and Agencies from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.