Mosquito-borne virus threat to Americas laid bare

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(BBC) More than 500 million people across Latin America and the Caribbean are at risk from mosquito-borne diseases, a summit in Cuba has heard.

Dengue, chikungunya and Zika are threatening half the population of the region, delegates heard.

This is the first gathering of Zika-affected nations since the World Health Organisation declared the virus a global emergency in February.

Zika is now affecting 47 countries and territories in the region.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the Zika virus
The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the Zika virus (Reuters photo)

The director of the Pan American Health Organization, Carissa Etienne, told the summit that “detection, investigation and prevention were the key words” in the fight against Zika.

She said the epidemiological situation in the Americas was “extremely complex” due to the high presence of transmitting mosquitoes and was “a challenge we must face in an integrated manner”.

The WHO has so far registered cases in 73 nations around the globe.

Zika was first identified in Uganda in 1947 but only came into sharp focus in Brazil in 2015 when reports emerged of neurological disorders in some newborn children.

Image copyright AP Image caption Carissa Etienne said the situation in the Americas was “extremely complex”

There was an unprecedented rise in the number of children being born with unusually small heads, called microcephaly.

Zika is spread by bites of the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

Experts say the risk of the virus spreading is at its highest over the summer months, when people are travelling between the Americas and other parts of the world.

The BBC’s Mexico and Central America correspondent, Will Grant, says Cuba itself has had only around 30 reported cases of Zika since the crisis in the region worsened at the end of last year, and most of those were imported cases.

But while they have much to teach the visiting nations in terms of public education and prevention at source, he says, their public health officials believe this is an opportunity for all sides to learn best practice from each other, particularly on new technologies and improved techniques in tackling the spread of the virus.

Image copyright AP Image caption Brazil saw a large rise in the number of children born with microcephaly

Dengue causes a severe flu-like illness and can develop into the potentially lethal complication called severe dengue.

The Pan American Health Organization said 14.2 million people in the region were affected between 2000 and 2014, with 7,000 fatalities.

Chikungunya is also a viral disease transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes. It causes fever and severe joint pain and has no cure.

The WHO reported almost 700,000 cases in the Americas in 2015 and although this was a decrease on the previous year, it said the disease “remains a threat for the region with Argentina recently reporting its first chikungunya outbreak”.

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