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Zika is a wake-up call for all of us

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girl receives malaria treatmentA girl receives anti-malaria treatment in Bolivia. Through our partnership with the Global Fund and malaria programmes in nine countries, UNDP can share expertise on multi-dimensional mosquito control responses. Photo: UNDP Bolivia

Monday, the World Health Organization declared the spread of the Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern. 

Unlike other viruses spread through the bite of the Aedes mosquito —such as dengue, yellow fever, or chikungunya — the Zika virus often went unnoticed and was considered a mild tropical disease with most virus carriers being symptomless.  Yet Brazil recently found itself in the throes of an unprecedented Zika outbreak — with more than a million people infected — and an unusually high number of babies born with microcephaly.

There is growing international consensus, although not yet definitive proof, that the virus has potentially catastrophic implications for infected pregnant women and their unborn children, as well as possible links to other serious neurological conditions. Experts believe that environmental destruction caused the Zika virus to infect humans and is fuelling its dramatic spread through the Americas.

There is no vaccine or cure for Zika, and a health sector response will simply not be sufficient to stop its spread.   This means that fear of infection is mounting among people living in the most vulnerable communities across Latin America, where cased have been reported in 25 countries and territories.

Some countries have responded to the threat of Zika by issuing their own recommendations including advising women not to get pregnant, introducing travel warnings and encouraging individuals to cover up and use more mosquito repellent. Unfortunately, these recommendations are mostly focused on individual action and do not adequately take into account structural factors, including environment and gender inequality, that are fueling the outbreak. They assume that all women have full control over their reproductive health and choices, and that they have the resources and knowledge to act.

The WHO Emergency Committee highlighted the importance of aggressive measures to reduce infection rates. To stop the spread of Zika, governments will need to do much more.  At a minimum, vastly expanded mosquito control measures are urgently needed. These include residual spraying of houses, a focus on eliminating breeding sites, minimizing urban stagnant water, community engagement to raise awareness, and mapping of the Aedes mosquito to better target efforts.    

As is true of any disease outbreak, as we saw with Ebola and learned from years working on HIV, health and development are intimately related.  The poor, those who live in informal settlements, marginalized populations, and groups that lack power and resources are often the hardest hit.

With this in mind, UNDP has always advocated for multi-sectoral responses to health, recognizing that vulnerability to poor health is often shaped by inequality, problematic policies in agriculture, environment, trade, housing or education, and a lack of a coordinated responses during outbreaks.

In declaring a global public health emergency, the WHO has acknowledged that robust and concerted cross-sectoral global action is needed to stop this virus.  UNDP has much to contribute, with our broad experience in supporting the implementation of large-scale health, environment, and development programmes. Through our partnership with the Global Fund, UNDP manages malaria programmes in nine countries. One of the ways UNDP can provide support to the Zika efforts is sharing expertise on multi-dimensional mosquito control responses. In addition, UNDP has strong partnerships with key health agencies, regional organizations, and civil society to help accelerate efforts.

Zika is a wake-up call for the way we address health and development in the Sustainable Development Goal era: if we do not take climate change and the impact that environmental degradation has on disease vectors seriously and if we do not address gender inequality and improve the daily conditions for people living in poverty, public health at-large will be increasingly at risk. 

This blog post was originally published in the Huffington Post.

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