The response to Zika: One Canadian Red Crosser’s experience

By Stephanie Murphy, Canadian Red Crosser

It’s that time again: the summer Olympics are here! Known for bringing both triumph and tears for athletes around the world, the location of the 2016 Games is also raising concerns for Zika. While the World Health Organization (WHO) has said the Rio Olympics will not alter the international spread of Zika, efforts to limit the virus’s effects across the region remain as important as ever.

The first case of Zika in the Americas was reported by WHO in May 2015 and, nine months later, the organization declared the outbreak an international emergency. This virus is unprecedented in terms of the number of cases and its link to birth defects. Brazil has been the worst hit, with almost 166,000 suspected and confirmed cases so far. To date, 42 countries worldwide have reported local, mosquito-borne transmission of the virus.

Dr Munoz on a field visit

Dr. Marie Munoz-Bertrand on a field visit to a poor neighbourhood in Panama to plan Red Cross community engagement and community surveillance programs. Visible is typical garbage scattered on the ground and an old tire, perfect places for mosquitoes to breed

In March 2016, Canadian Red Cross aid worker Dr. Marie Munoz-Bertrand, a doctor with Montreal’s regional department of public health, arrived in Panama to assist with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) response to Zika. Dr. Munoz-Bertrand got to work supporting regional Red Cross National Societies in writing plans of action, which included strategies to combat the outbreak, outline community engagement plans, and assess water and sanitation aspects. She was also responsible for coordinating communications within the Red Cross regionally, developing training sessions, recruiting staff and working with other NGOs.

Community engagement involves volunteers and staff going directly into neighbourhoods to educate the public, particularly about how to prevent Zika’s spread.

As Dr. Munoz-Bertrand notes, “No vaccine exists for Zika, so the public must know the various ways the virus can spread and how to prevent them, as well as how to protect themselves.” Only one person in four shows symptoms of the virus, yet it can be sexually transmitted by infected individuals. Many countries have reported Zika cases not from mosquitoes but from human transmission, so ensuring the public is aware of this is essential.

In order to stop mosquito transmission of the virus, communities must also work to eliminate breeding sites. Spraying insecticide only kills adult mosquitos, not their eggs. As the Zika-carrying mosquito breeds in water-filled containers, puddles and pooled water, eliminating these hazards is critical to stopping Zika’s spread. The poorest communities can be most vulnerable, as they often lack proper water infrastructure, making the need for water-filled containers necessary. Volunteers and staff teach communities to get rid of water vessels if possible, and how to properly clean and cover the ones that are needed.

Community engagement involves volunteers and staff going directly into communities to educate the public

A community engagement training session for Red Cross National Societies, organized by an IFRC specialist, Ombretta Baggio. The session included Red Cross staff and volunteers from El Salvador, Honduras, Brazil, Colombia, Panama and Guatemala.

Community surveillance, with which Dr. Munoz-Bertrand often assisted, is one of the ways to determine if and how Zika is affecting a certain population. As the lab tests used to confirm Zika are complicated and not always available, a community can be alerted to the presence of the virus by noticing people's symptoms. In communities that are isolated from health services, observing symptoms can help determine if and how Zika is affecting people there and where it is spreading.

Despite the work being done by the Red Cross and numerous other NGOs, Zika remains a concern across the Americas. Continued engagement and education is needed to minimize the virus’s effects in Central and South America and stop its spread internationally. For more information about the virus and the IFRC response, visit the IFRC website.

The Canadian Red Cross provided support to the Zika response through cash contributions and additional personnel, as part of its ongoing work to strengthen the abilities of national societies in identified countries to mitigate, prepare and respond to emergencies locally.
Funding for this work was made possible through generous contributions from the Canadian government through a partnership with Global Affairs Canada, as well as from donations from the Canadian public.

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