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Published in: 06/20/2016

New Zika response strategy to focus on preventing, managing medical complications

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The United Nations health agency today issued a revised strategic response plan for the next one and a half years to combat the transmission of the Zika virus, which has now spread to 60 countries.

The Zika Strategic Response Plan from July 2016 to December 2017 would place a greater focus on preventing and managing medical complications caused by Zika virus infection, requiring $121.9 million for its effective implementation, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Much has been learned about Zika virus infection [...] This Zika virus strain and its complications represent a new type of public health threat which requires a unique and integrated strategy that places support for women and girls of child-bearing age at its core,”said WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan in a news release on the strategy.

In an interconnected world characterized by profound mobility, Zika has spread dramatically across central and southern America and more recently to other regions, including Asia and Africa, she said.

“Its risk profile has changed from a mild threat to one with serious consequences,” Dr. Chan stressed, noting that there is now scientific consensus that Zika virus is a cause of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

The previous response plan was put in place in February, but at the time there had not been as much knowledge about Zika as there was now. The link between Zika and neurological disorders had not yet been established then.

“Knowing now that Zika could have long-term consequences, it was necessary to work with countries to have enough capacities to counsel couples before the pregnancy, to monitor and follow pregnancies, and to provide medical support if needed to babies,” WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told reporters in Geneva.

Risk communications targeting pregnant women, their partners, households and communities will be central to prevention efforts to ensure they have the information they need to protect themselves.

Other elements include integrated vector management, sexual and reproductive health counselling as well as health education and care within the social and legal contexts of each country where Zika virus is being transmitted.

The plan highlights several specific characteristics of the Zika outbreak that require a collaborative, global response and support. These include:

  • the potential for further international spread of Zika virus given the wide distribution of Aedes mosquitoes that are capable of transmitting Zika virus;
  • the lack of population immunity in areas where Zika virus is circulating for the first time and which allows the disease to spread quickly;
  • the absence of vaccines, specific treatments and rapid diagnostic tests; and
  • inequalities in access to sanitation, information and health services in affected areas.

Significant funding gaps existed for the full implementation of the previous plan, and coherent funding mechanisms are essential for successful implementation of the revised plan.

In May, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established a UN Zika response multi-partner trust fund, to generate and ensure the effective use of the resources necessary to implement this revised Zika strategic response plan.