Global warming and the phenomenon of El Niño are the breeding ground for the propagation of the mosquito that transmits the illness.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Zika virus a public emergency of international significance, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. Brazil announced its first case in May of 2015, and since then at least 20 countries of the region have already reported the presence of Zika in their territory: Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guadalupe, Guatemala, Guyana, French Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martens, Surinam and Venezuela.
According to the WHO, the Zika virus is found in tropical zones with a high density of mosquitos. The virus is contracted by a bite from the Aedes mosquito, the same insect that transmits dengue fever, chikunguya fever and yellow fever.
‘The Aedes aegypti mosquito breeds in stagnant water’, the WHO clarified. ‘Extreme droughts, floods, torrential rains and temperature increases are among the the effects of El Niño – a warming of the central and eastern part of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. With the increase in areas with favourable conditions for breeding, it is to be expected that the number of mosquitoes will increase’.
This virus has been associated with an increase in cases of microcephaly in new-borns as well as an increase in the Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which attacks the nervous system, leading to paralysis. In the past year, Brazil reported 4,000 cases of microcephaly.
The US environmentalist, Bill McKibben, founder of the 350.org organization, commented: “Spread by mosquitoes whose range inexorably expands as the climate warms, Zika causes mild flu-like symptoms. But pregnant women bitten by the wrong mosquito are liable to give birth to babies with shrunken heads”.
Colombian health authorities recommended that women of reproductive age postpone their decision to get pregnant while the Zika epidemic is present.
The hottest year ever recorded
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) confirmed that, ‘for the first time on record, temperatures in 2015 were about 1ºC above the pre-industrial era’.
According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Administration of Aeronautics and Space (NASA), last year was the hottest in 136 years. Since climate temperatures began to be recorded in 1880, global surfaces, both land and ocean, have never reached temperatures this high.
‘During 2015, the average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.62ºF (0.90ºC) above the 20th century average. This was the highest among all 136 years in the 1880-2015 record, surpassing the previous record set last year by 0.29ºF (0.16ºC) and marking the fourth time that a global temperature record has been set this century. This is also the largest margin by which the annual global temperature record has been broken. Ten months had record high temperatures for their respective months during the year. The five highest monthly departures from average for any month on record all occurred during 2015’, stated NOAA and NASA in a report published on Jan. 20.
Petteri Taalas, Secretary General of the WMO, specified that, “an exceptionally strong El Niño and global warming caused by greenhouse gases joined forces with dramatic effect on the climate system in 2015. The power of El Niño will fade in the coming months but the impacts of human-induced climate change will be with us for many decades”.
The high temperatures due to El Niño – whose presence was confirmed this past September by the WMO – that were recorded in Central America and the northern part of South America have been accompanied by extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, heat waves, that are the breeding ground for the spreading of Zika.
“We have reached the threshold of 1ºC above pre-industrial temperatures. It is a sobering moment in the history of our planet,” said Taalas. “If the commitments made during the climate change negotiations in Paris and furthermore a higher emission reduction ambition level is reached, we still have a chance to stay within the maximum of 2ºC limit”.
Meanwhile, Senegalese researchers who helped contain the Ebola epidemic in West Africa are training Brazilians on how to tackle the Zika virus.
Amadou Alpha Sall who is director of research at the Pasteur Institute in the Senegalese capital Dakar was on the frontline of the war on Ebola in West Africa. Together with colleagues from São Paulo University’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences (USP), Sall and his team of five travelled to Recife, in the federal state of Pernambuco. It is one of the areas with the highest incidence of Zika infections, with more than 1,200 cases of microcephaly registered.
Sall and his team carry a mobile laboratory, which can diagnose the virus in a blood sample in only 15 minutes. The system developed by the Dakar team was decisive in helping contain the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Researchers hope it will be just as effective in fighting Zika in Brazil. The compact lab was adapted to be able to recognize the Zika virus. It can easily be transported to the most remote corners of the country. It operates on solar energy, which is important in villages where there is still no electricity.Sall said that he wants to train Brazilians in detecting the virus early enough: “If you can’t identify the virus, you will have no way of telling whether the epidemic is advancing, stabilizing or ebbing”, he added.The head of the Senegalese team believes that the most efficient way to control the epidemic is to quickly identify and isolate infected patients. He said: “People think controlling a vector means killing the mosquito. But controlling a vector means controlling a person in the viremic stage, because it is the patient who infects the mosquito. Once infected, the patient himself turns into a repository for the virus”. (J.L.)