As the Zika virus becomes a growing concern across Latin America, here’s how it affects communities where Compassion works and our response.

What is the Zika virus? The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease that has gone from “a mild threat to one of alarming proportions”. It has been declared a public health emergency of international concern. The emerging epidemic has been linked to babies born with undeveloped brains in Brazil and is spreading rapidly through the Americas.

How is the Zika virus affecting Compassion communities? At present, there have been no reports of Compassion assisted children or staff being affected by the Zika virus. The situation is being actively monitored and appropriate preventative measures are being taken to support the families and their children.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported active transmissions of Zika in 24 countries. Compassion currently works in 10 of these countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Mexico.

Is the virus contagious? The Zika virus is transmitted primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito—the same mosquitoes that carry dengue and yellow fever. This mosquito is found throughout the world but especially in tropical and sub-tropical areas of the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

Is it serious? Only one in four people infected with Zika show symptoms of mild fever, rash, headache, and red itchy eyes. Among those who do display symptoms, the disease is usually mild and can last for two to seven days.

However, for pregnant women there are serious concerns. Brazil has recorded a large increase in cases of microcephaly, a congenital condition where babies are born with smaller heads and incomplete brain development.

Is microcephaly linked to the virus? Since October 2015, there have been 404 confirmed cases of microcephaly in Brazil, with 17 linked to the Zika virus. While there is a possible link, it has not yet been scientifically proven. The director general of WHO, Margaret Chan, however, said that although that causal relationship has not yet been proved, it is “strongly suspected”. This is partly due to other research that has shown the virus is capable of crossing the placental barrier and showing up in amniotic fluid.

Microcephaly can have a range of devastating affects including cognitive and intellectual impairment which can lead to learning disabilities and significant developmental delays. It can also cause seizure disorders and sensory issues.

How is Compassion responding? There is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available to treat Zika. Treatment currently consists of relieving pain, fever and any other symptoms. It is important to note there is no evidence the virus can cause death. The best form of prevention is protection against mosquito bites.

As part of an ongoing prevention campaign, local Compassion staff are distributing educational resources to mothers and communities about the risks of Zika and how to avoid the virus. Schools have been fumigated in many areas where Compassion child development centres are located. Many mothers in our Child Survival Program have been given insect repellent and have received mosquito nets.

The proactive steps local Compassion staff are taking in response to the outbreak also include:

  • Providing information about the progression of the virus and preventive measures
  • Providing mosquito nets and insect repellent
  • Educating parents and children about eliminating mosquito breeding sites such as open water sources, blocked drains and garbage
  • Organising education for mothers in Compassion’s programs
  • Working with local authorities to fumigate problem areas.

Governments are also taking action, such as organising pesticide spraying campaigns, media campaigns and home visits to create awareness.

We will endeavour to keep you updated as more information becomes available. Please continue to uphold all those in affected regions in prayer.

Words by Grace Thee and Monique Wallace

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