Can Zika be a threat to India?

By: Dr Rakesh Bhatnagar, Rajni Garg

New Delhi, February 08 (G’nY News Service): The Zika virus belongs to the genus Flavivirus of family Flaviviridae, and is transmitted by Aedes genus of mosquitoes.The most common symptoms of Zika infection are joint pain, a slight rash, fever and conjunctivitis.

In 2015, the virus became the focus of attention of scientists and health officials throughout the world due to its hitherto unperceived capability of causing microcephaly in unborn children by affecting the placenta of pregnant mothers, after being sexually transmitted during unprotected intercourse. The virus is also found to trigger Guillain Barre syndrome in adults, a kind of auto-immune disorder in which the immune system attacks the body’s own myelinated peripheral nerves,thus weakening muscles, and hence causing autonomic dysfunction or respiratory failure.

Isolated from the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947, the virus moved from Africa to Asia in 1951-1981, and then on to Micronesia in 2007 and onwards to South and Central America and the Caribbean in 2015. Currently, Brazil is the the worst hit with the highest number of infections.

Worldwide, Zika pandemic has affected almost 29 countries till now, in which there have been three reports that suggest Zika virus can be transmitted sexually. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has detailed the sexually transmitted cases of Zika virus, the first being from an infected male to his female partner few days before his symptoms appeared. In the second one, a pregnant lady got infection from her infected male partner and the third instance is when Zika virus was isolated from the semen of an infected male 10 weeks after the illness began. Scientific organisations throughout the world are striving to know the survival time of the virus in the semen after the illness and whether female partners can transmit the virus to their male partners, so as to take proper measures for the prevention of Zika transmission.

Reports suggest that India may also have had afew undetected cases of Zika fever, which were ignored due to lack of severe symptoms. A report published in the Journal of Immunology, as far back as in 1954, has mentioned neutralizing antibodies for the Zika virus in the sera of patients from six different localities in different states of India. This suggests that Indians have already been infected with the virus a long time ago. Currently, there are no cases of Zika infections in India, as reported by Union Health Minister J P Nadda on February 2, 2015.

Most significantly, a recent study on the population distribution of the Aedes genus of mosquitoes, shows India to be one of the most attractive to these mosquitoes, along with Australia, South America and South Africa. Considering India’s demographic status and the vulnerability of populations to unprotected sex, India can easily end up with a Zika epidemic. In the event of an outbreak, prevention of sexual transmission and trans-placental transmission can be a huge challenge.

The Government of India has followed the lead given by the Centre for Disease Control, USA and warned pregnant women against travelling to areas affected by Zika and advised people to take all precautions if travelling to such areas is inevitable.

The Union Health Ministry has also designated the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) as the nodal agency for conducting investigations in case of an outbreak. It has also asked states to activate rapid response teams comprising epidemiologists or public health specialists, microbiologists and medical specialists to tackle suspected cases. Dr D T Mourya, Director, National Institute of Virology has emphasised on the Institute’s preparedness for molecular testing of patient samples in case needed

However, there remains a pressing need to equip more laboratories in every state for standard molecular confirmatory tests in order to fasten screening of suspected cases. On February 3, 2016, Bharat Biotech Ltd. has claimed to submit two vaccine samples to the Indian government to fight Zika. Once approved, India could come up with the world’s first Zika Vaccine, claims Dr Krishna Ella, Chairman and Managing Director of the company.

Bharat Biotech has already filed for patenting these vaccines and has asked the government to expedite the regulatory clearance procedures, so that pre-clinical trials can get going.

Perhaps, newer options like genetically modified mosquitoes, bio-insecticides, and biological control of the Aedes population could be considered too. This can help us combat not just Zika, but dengue and chikungunya as well.



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