Senegalese ebola 'fighters' take hard lessons they learnt to Latin America to help fight Zika outbreak

The number of babies born with suspected microcephaly in Brazil since October has now reached nearly 4,000

SENEGALESE researchers, who helped contain the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, are training Brazilians on how to tackle the Zika virus. 

The Zika virus is transmitted to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These are the same mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya viruses. 

In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil. The outbreak in Brazil led to reports of Guillain-Barre syndrome and pregnant women giving birth to babies with birth defects and poor pregnancy outcomes. 

It has been linked to thousands of babies being born with small heads and underdeveloped brains - also called microcephaly - due to mothers becoming infected during pregnancy and so now some countries have advised women against getting pregnant.

Brazil said the number of babies born with suspected microcephaly since October has now reached nearly 4,000 - compared to 150 cases for the whole of 2014. 

Mobile laboratory 

Deutsche Welle reports that Amadou Alpha Sall, director of research at the Pasteur Institute in Senegal was on the frontline of the war on Ebola in West Africa. Together with colleagues from São Paulo University‘s Institute of Biomedical Sciences, 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.

No vaccine

Considering there is no treatment or vaccine is available - estimates are that the nearest vaccine could be at least three years away - the mobile laboratory brings hope. It allows for quick and early detection which, the head of the Senegalese team believes, is the most efficient way to control the epidemic since they can then quickly identify and isolate infected patients. 

According to Paolo Zanotto, from São Paulo University‘s Institute of Biomedical Sciences, “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.”

The compact lab was adapted to be able to recognise the Zika virus, it can easily be transported to the most remote corners of the country and operates on solar energy, which is important in villages where there is still no electricity.  

Virus history

The virus was first detected in 1947 in monkeys in Uganda and prior to 2015, Zika virus outbreaks have occurred in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The only African nation that reports active transmission of the Zika virus is Cape Verde.

Currently, outbreaks are occurring in many countries and the Zika virus will continue to spread. It will be difficult to determine how the virus will spread over time.

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