The World Health Organization reported late last month that the ongoing yellow fever outbreak in Africa is serious but that it does not warrant being declared an international health emergency.
Since it was first identified in Angola in December 2015, yellow fever has spread to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and is believed to have sickened more than 6,300 people and killed about 400, despite millions of doses of vaccine having been sent repeatedly to Angola. In August, some 7.7 million people were vaccinated in a major campaign that was launched in the “high risk” DRC capital Kinshasa, along with 1.5 million in other parts of the country. In Angola, 2.4 million people have been vaccinated, making 11.6 million in all.
The campaigns have depleted the global stockpile of 6 million yellow fever vaccine doses twice this year already, which according to the WHO is unprecedented. The vaccine shortage has now become so acute that officials have begun diluting the vaccine by 80 percent in a bid to stretch the supply. The four major manufacturers who supply the global stockpile have worked around the clock in order to replenish the stockpile.
Last month, the UN health agency convened an emergency committee of experts to consider the outbreak’s status, stating afterwards that the increase of the mosquito-spread haemorrhagic fever appears to have slowed. The WHO further reported that since 12 July there have been no new infections reported in what is an “extremely positive” trend. The upcoming rainy season has raised fears of further spread of the worst outbreak in decades. It also noted that intense population movements across the border to neighbouring Republic of Congo pose a risk of further spread, adding that the Brazzaville government should consider a “pre-emptive vaccination campaign in high-risk areas,” noting that the virus was moving towards Central and Eastern Africa.
An NGO warned this month that Sierra Leone and Liberia are at risk for a new deadly epidemic akin to the impact of the Ebola virus because of a lack of clean water and hygienic conditions in most homes.
WaterAid has reported that the two provisions were the “first line of defense” against infectious diseases, noting however they needed to be put in place before outbreaks began. In a statement, the British-based group disclosed that in Liberia, 24.5 percent of people do not have access to clean water. In Sierra Leone, this figure stands at more than 37 percent. WaterAid further added that when it comes to basic sanitation, the figures are even higher, with just over 83 percent in Liberia living without access to it and 86.7 percent of people in Sierra Leone. In the statement WaterAid’s Joe Lambongang disclosed that “the terrible suffering of the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia during the Ebola crisis is at high risk of being repeated in another disease epidemic if we do not see action to improve water, sanitation and hygiene practices in our communities, schools and healthcare facilities. It further indicated that “these basic provisions are the first line of defense against infectious diseases including Ebola,” adding, “to ask healthcare professionals to battle an epidemic without clean water, safe toilets and somewhere to wash their hands is unrealistic and needlessly puts lives at risk.” In June, Liberia confirmed that it was free of Ebola, effectively meaning that there were no known cases in West Africa of the tropical virus, which left more than 11,300 people dead in the region since late 2013. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared an end on 1 June to Ebola cases in Guinea, where it first broke out in December 2013, and in Sierra Leone on 17 March. According to Sierra Leone’s health ministry figures, 30 percent of the population dies every year of diseases that are passed on by contaminated water.
A World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman has disclosed that the WHO’s Emergency Committee on Zika will meet in the coming weeks in order to evaluate the risks tied to going on with the Olympic Games in Brazil in August. The meeting comes as the debate grows over the safety of holding the Olympics in the South American country amidst the ongoing Zika virus outbreak.
According to WHO spokesman Nyka Alexander, “the Emergency Committee meeting will consider the situation in Brazil, including the question of the Olympics,” noting that while the WHO will make risk assessments of a public health issue, it will ultimately be up to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to decide on holding the event in Rio de Janeiro, which is due to begin on 5 August. A spokesman for Rio 2016 has disclosed that officials are continuing to follow WHO recommendations on Zika.
Dr David Heymann, chairman of the WHO committee of independent experts, has disclosed that postponing the Rio Olympics over fears that it could speed the spread of the Zika virus would give a “false” sense of security because travellers are constantly going in and out of Brazil. WHO experts have also indicated that because it will be winter in Brazil when the Olympics begin, mosquitoes that carry the virus will be less abundant.
At the beginning of June, a public letter was signed by 150 public health experts and scientists calling for the Olympics to be delayed or moved over concerns that the Games could speed up the global spread of the Zika virus. However top US officials agreed with WHO experts that Zika did not pose enough of a risk to postpone or move the Olympics. According to Dr Tom Frieden, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, travel to the Olympics would represent less than one quarter of 1 percent of all travel to Zika-affected areas, adding that the risk was low except for pregnant women.
While athletes will have to make their own decisions as to whether to risk Zika for the potential globally of Olympic gold, some athletes have already withdrawn from the competition.
On 9 June, the latest Ebola outbreak in Liberia, the last country still affected by the deadliest flare-up in history, was declared over.
Liberia effectively passed the World Health Organization (WHO) threshold of 42 days – twice the incubation period for the virus, since the last known patient tested negative for the second time. Last week, the WHO declared an end to the latest Ebola outbreak in Guinea, however it warned that a recurrence of the virus remained a threat as previous declarations announcing the end of Ebola flare-ups in West Africa have been followed by the emergence of new cases. While in late March, the WHO declared that the Ebola outbreak no longer constituted an international emergency, new cases emerged in Liberia just two days later.
The Ebola epidemic began in Guinea in December 2013 and killed more than 11,300 people. It devastated economies and health systems in the worst affected countries in West Africa and tested the world’s capacity to respond to a global health emergency. At its peak in 2014, the Ebola outbreak sparked anxiety about a possible global pandemic and led some governments to threaten or unilaterally enforce travel bans to and from the worst-affected countries. In all, the virus affected ten countries, including the United States and Spain, with more than 28,000 cases reported – virtually all in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The WHO has drawn criticism for its delayed response to the Ebola crisis and its failure to identify the outbreak.
One-hundred-and-fifty-two health experts have signed a letter calling for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to either halt the upcoming Olympic games in Brazil or move it elsewhere.
The letter warns that some 500,000 foreign tourists are expected to travel to Rio de Janeiro, which would lead to the virus being spread to countries where it may not have reached. It further states that the Zika virus has more serious medical consequences than first through and claims that the health emergency contains “many uncertainties.” One of the authors of the letter, Professor Amir Attaran, has stated that the games risk becoming the “Olympics of brain damage.” He believes that allowing the Olympics to go ahead would lead to the birth of more brain damaged children.
The letter also calls into question the relationship between the UN health agency and the IOC, which entered an official partnership in 2010. Professor Attaran states that the partnership between the WHO and the IOC was “beyond the pale” and calls the independence of the WHO into questions. He states that “it is ignorant and arrogant for the WHO to march hand-in-hand with the IOC,” adding, “how can it be ethical to increase the risk of spreading the virus? Just because a fire has begun doesn’t mean you need to pour gasoline on it.”
The WHO however has rejected the call, stating that suspending or moving the event would “not significantly alter” the spread of the virus. A statement released by the WHO indicates that “based on current assessment, cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus,” adding, “Brazil is one of almost 60 countries and territories which to-date reporting continuing transmission of Zika by mosquitoes…People continue to travel between these countries and territories for a variety of reasons…The best way to reduce the risk of disease is to follow public health travel advise.”
The Zika virus has been linked to serious birth defects including microcephaly-where babies are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. It has also been linked to Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis, which affect the nervous system. Nearly 1,300 babies have been born in Brazil with microphaly since the mosquito-borne Zika began circulating last year. The majority of those infected with the virus have no symptoms, however it can cause mild illness with symptoms that include rashes, fever and headaches. Pregnant women have already been advised not to travel to Rio de Janeiro, however the WHO has indicated that the risk of Zika will lessen in August because it is winter in Brazil.
While no Olympic Games has been moved because of health concerns, in 2003, FIFA moved the Women’s World Cup from China over fears of the respiratory virus SARS.
The Rio games are due to begin on 5 August.