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Nayan Chanda

Nayan Chanda is the author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization and is Consulting Editor of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Center, Yale University.

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Fighting The Zika Virus

The looming threat of a pandemic should be used to expand Modi’s Clean India campaign to create mosquito-free areas

The shadow of a new global pandemic could soon loom over India. Scientists believe that the newly revealed Zika virus that is exploding in South America is carried by the same Aedes aegypti mosquito that has been proliferating in India, doubling the incidence of dengue in the country last year. Failure to prevent the spread of Zika could prove more costly than dengue, which causes fever and body aches but is rarely fatal.

Zika’s victims are next generation. It is suspected to cause a devastating birth defect — brain deformity in babies born to infected mothers. In Brazil alone, some 4,000 cases of microcephaly — that causes babies to be born with smaller than normal heads and developmental retardation — have been detected since May 2015. The disease has no early symptoms, no cure and no vaccine.

Zika originally emerged in Africa, but in the last several months has seen explosive growth in South America and is now threatening the wider world calling for a global response. After SARS, avian flu and Ebola, the latest threat is deemed serious enough for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to take the rare step of sounding the alarm by declaring an international health emergency. The fact that the WHO has swung into immediate action by pouring resources into the search for a vaccine demonstrates the gravity of the situation.

Tom Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control, recently said that Zika could spread widely under two conditions: presence of the specific mosquito species that spreads the virus and crowded communities in warm climates. He may well have been talking about India.

Last year, the governments in Delhi and other large cities in the country had difficulty tackling the escalating rate of dengue infections carried by Aedes aegypti mosquitos, whose incidence had doubled.

The Indian government has said it would be setting up controls to monitor passengers coming from the 28 affected countries. However, only one in five infected show any symptoms. Even if passengers with dengue-like symptoms are detected, whether or not they carry the Zika virus cannot be determined without blood tests for which India lacks the necessary kits. Fortunately, the number of visitors from South America are not as large as visitors from the US (the US has a limited number of cases), Asia and Europe. But that could change this summer with the Olympics being held in Brazil — the ground zero of Zika infection. The presence in Rio de Janeiro of 380,000 visitors from around the world risks turbo-charging the spread of the infection.

The conventional wisdom is that developing a vaccine could take years. In the meantime, governments have to step up efforts to prevent the spread of the virus in a mosquito population that has been growing at an exponential rate thanks in part to global warming.

To begin with, serious effort needs to be made to prepare airports and laboratories to receive people suspected of carrying the infection and administering the required blood tests. The recommendation by some South American health authorities to women in the affected regions to postpone pregnancy is simply unworkable in India. The looming threat of a pandemic that could cause a serious health crisis, to say nothing of heartbreak for mothers of deformed babies, should be seized as an ideal moment to expand Prime Minister Modi’s Clean India campaign to create mosquito-free areas. Not only should government agencies be mobilised but civic organisations could be encouraged and guided to help eradicate mosquito-breeding grounds.

The threat of Zika is the latest in a series brought about by globalisation, but as ever the fight back will need to begin at the local level.

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