Killer viruses on the prowl, threaten human life
• El Nino to cause increase in health-related emergencies, says WHO
• Mosquito-transmitted Zika joins trail
• Pregnant women on alert as more babies are born with defects
VIRUSES, hitherto almost unknown to scientists, are in town – from China to Saudi Arabia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada to Nigeria – unleashing ill health and death.
The list of the infections currently circulating around the world and blamed on the viruses include Lassa fever in West Africa, especially Nigeria; Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Sierra Leone; the Zika virus in Latin America, which is also causing birth defects; Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) in El Salvador; Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Corona Virus (MERS-CoV) that has spread to all continents; and Human infection with Avian Influenza A (H7N9) in China not to mention the bird-to-bird strain circulating in Nigeria.
The Guardian’s investigation revealed that most viral infections peak between November and March, and that the situation this year is worsened because of the effect of climate change factors such as El Nino.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and partners predicted at the weekend that there is a major global increase in health-related emergencies this year due to El Niño.
According to a new WHO report, severe drought, flooding, rains and temperature rises are all known effects of El Niño that can lead to food insecurity, malnutrition, disease outbreaks, acute water shortages and disruption of health services. The health implications are usually more intense in developing countries with fewer capacities to reduce the health consequences.
El Niño is a warming of the central to eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, which affects rainfall patterns and temperatures in many parts of the world but most intensely in the tropical regions of Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America, which are particularly vulnerable to natural hazards. Typically, some places receive much more rain than normal while others receive much less.
While adverse weather effects of El Niño are expected to peak in January 2016 and wind down by April, the health impacts will last throughout 2016.
The current El Niño from 2015 to 2016 is predicted to be the worst in recent years, and comparable to the El Niño in 1997 to 1998, which had major health consequences worldwide.
In Eastern Africa, as a result of the El Niño in 1997 to1998, WHO found that rainfall patterns were unusually heavy and led to serious flooding and major outbreaks of malaria, cholera and Rift Valley Fever.
Based on the latest United Nations (UN) figures, the report estimates 60 million people will be impacted by El Niño this year with many suffering health consequences. Thus far, requests for financial support by seven high-risk countries –Ethiopia, Lesotho, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda – facing the health costs of El Niño have reached US$76 million. WHO expects more countries will seek financial support to respond to El Niño effectively. Part of the response will be to provide additional health services to those in need, such as increased surveillance and emergency vaccination.
Meanwhile, Lassa fever virus is spreading in Nigeria like wild fire through Harmattan leaving over 200 people dead and thousands affected in over 17 states of the federation.
A second EVD case was at the weekend confirmed in Sierra Leone days after the WHO declared an end to the epidemic especially in West Africa. The aunt of the 22-year-old student who died of Ebola on January 12, 2016, was diagnosed with the disease.
Ebola is spread among humans via the bodily fluids of recently deceased victims and carriers showing symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhoea and – in the worst cases – massive internal and external bleeding.
The Ebola outbreak, which began in Guinea in December 2013, has killed more than 11,300 people, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, marking the deadliest outbreak of the virus yet.
Nigeria, which was declared free of EVD in October 2014 after three months of reporting its first case, is still grappling with a sister virus, Lassa fever.
The resurgence of new cases in Sierra Leone comes after West Africa a week ago celebrated the end of the outbreak after Liberia became the last of the three worst-hit countries in the region to be declared Ebola-free.
Zika virus disease, caused by a virus transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, has since October 2015 led to thousands of death and birth defects especially in Latin American countries of Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia.
Zika virus is common in parts of Africa and South East Asia, but since 2007 there have been various outbreaks outside of the disease’s comfort zone. It spread to South America in 2014, before reaching Mexico and the Caribbean last year. The first U.S. case was reported in Texas at the start of January.
Scientists are worried about the Zika virus because the large outbreak in Brazil, which began in May 2015, has led to increase in cases of congenital microcephaly in newborns and stillborn.
Also, the WHO has reported an unusual increase of GBS in El Salvador, which is linked to Zika. In El Salvador, the annual average number of GBS is 169; however, from December 1, 2015, to January 6, 2016, 46 GBS were recorded, including two deaths.
MERS-CoV has been spreading so fast across the continents. As of June 19, 2015, 1338 laboratory-confirmed cases of human infection with MERS-CoV have been reported to WHO since 2012, including at least 475 deaths. To date, 26 countries from all continents have reported cases.
The National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) of China, on January 11, 2016, notified WHO of 10 additional laboratory-confirmed cases of human infection with avian influenza A (H7N9) virus, including three deaths.
The Guardian investigation also revealed that the world is in the influenza season, and influenza may infect up to 20 per cent of the population, depending on which viruses are circulating.
According to the WHO, infected people at increased risk for severe disease include pregnant women, the very young and the very old, immune-compromised people and people with chronic underlying medical conditions.
Influenza A(H3N2) virus is known to cause severe disease and death in the elderly, while influenza A(H1N1) virus, which caused the 2009 pandemic and which now circulates as seasonal influenza, is more likely to cause severe disease in younger, otherwise healthy adults.
The Zika virus is known to circulate in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. People with Zika virus disease usually have a mild fever, skin rash (exanthema) and conjunctivitis. These symptoms normally last for two to seven days. There is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available. The best form of prevention is protection against mosquito bites .
New figures from Brazil show a further rise in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads to mothers infected with the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus.
There have been 3,893 cases of microcephaly since October, when the authorities first noticed a surge, up from 3,500 in last week’s report.
Zika is transmitted by the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads dengue and chikungunya.
Brazil is experiencing the largest known outbreak of Zika.
The virus has already killed five babies in the country, said the health ministry. Another 44 deaths are being investigated.
Penultimate week, Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Castro said a new testing kit was being developed to identify quickly the presence of any of the three viruses.
He also announced extra funds to speed up the development of a vaccine for Zika.
At the moment the only way to fight Zika is to clear standing water where mosquitoes breed.
There has been a sharp rise in the number of cases of Zika in several other Latin American countries.
In Colombia, more than 13,500 cases have been reported.
“We are the second country, in Latin America, after Brazil in the number of reported cases,” said Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria.
He has advised women in the country not to get pregnant for the rest of the outbreak, which, he said, could last until July.
In Bolivia, the authorities have reported the first case of a pregnant woman diagnosed with Zika.
“She has not travelled outside the country,” Joaquin Monasterio, health chief for the eastern department of Santa Cruz, told AFP news agency. “This is a home-grown case.”
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) issued an alert penultimate Friday advising pregnant women to avoid travelling to Brazil and other Latin American and Caribbean countries where outbreaks of Zika have been registered.