Parts of West Africa are still reeling from the worst ever Ebola outbreak. But now they’re bracing themselves for the next potentially devastating epidemic.
Last week the World Health Organization announced that the Asian strain of Zika currently sweeping through Latin America had arrived on the doorstep of Africa in Cape Verde.
The archipelago sits just off the north west coast of Africa, not far from where Ebola first struck.
But lessons from that disaster are being learned and applied to this latest global health emergency, according to WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti.
“Following the Ebola outbreak, countries made a real effort to improve their preparedness, their surveillance systems, their response systems and to some extent their lab diagnostic capacity.
“If you’re talking about (the worst Ebola affected countries) Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, they are better prepared than most.” Dr Moeti said.
But many challenges remain. Zika is very different to Ebola.
It’s not as deadly. In fact most people infected don’t show any symptoms at all.
The main risk is to pregnant women because of the link to women who’ve been infected giving birth to brain-damaged babies.
Dr Moeti said it’s impossible to predict where Zika will arrive in the region from, but she’s expecting it to be from Cape Verde or Latin America.
“I think… following up on people who have travelled to these at-risk areas, and monitoring their condition will be a challenge.
“Also, being able to detect cases of microcephaly, whereever that arises, will be challenging because it happens sometime after someone might have been exposed”
Responding to health emergencies, such as the current Zika outbreak, is at the top of the agenda at the annual World Health Assembly at the UN in Geneva.
Three thousand health officials, policy makers, charity representatives and pharmaceutical representatives are gathering in Geneva this week from around the world to discuss priorities for the coming year, and talk budgets for funding them.
It’s an enormous event with an enormous amount of good will.
But what’s desperately needed on the ground in Zika-hit areas is practical solutions, such as better tools to fight mosquitoes, better advice for desperately worried pregnant women, and a vaccine that can protect the most vulnerable.
Parts of Africa may be “reasonably well prepared” for Zika, but as the Director General of the WHO Dr Margaret Chan put it during her opening speech in Geneva:
“For infectious diseases, you cannot trust the past when planning for the future.”
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