The Union Health Ministry has sounded an alert for Zika and appointed the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) as the nodal agency for investigation of any outbreak of the viral infection in India.
This comes in the backdrop of the World Health Organization (WHO) designating the virus and its suspected complications in newborns as a public health emergency of international concern. The virus is transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, which is also known to transmit infections such as dengue and chikungunya.
The WHO has named 22 countries and territories in the Americas where local transmission of the Zika virus has been reported. The virus causes microcephaly (little head) in the newborn.
In a press release, the Ministry said: “The NCDC, Delhi, and the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, would be the apex laboratories to support the outbreak investigation and for confirmation of laboratory diagnosis. Ten additional laboratories would be provided by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to expand the scope of laboratory diagnosis.”
While the ICMR will identify research priorities, the Health Ministry has set up a joint monitoring group under the Director-General of Health Services (DGHS) to follow the events daily. The NCDC and the Focal Point for International Health Regulations (IHR) have been tasked with sharing of information with the IHR focal points of the affected countries and be in constant touch with the WHO for updates.
Public health experts say poor vector control in India could lead to a possible outbreak in the region. “Since India has the mosquito [aedes aegypti] responsible for the spread of the virus, the same one that causes dengue and chikungunya, if an infected individual comes here, infection can be spread by mosquitoes biting this person, acquiring the virus and then passing it on to those who are bitten subsequently. Since many parts of India have poor mosquito control, these areas remain vulnerable if an infected individual reaches those regions and gets exposed to mosquitoes,” said Vivekanand Jha, executive director, George Institute for Global Health.
Rapid Response Teams (RRTs) will be activated at the Central and State surveillance units. In addition to strengthening laboratories, the government will activate RRTs at Central and State surveillance units, the Health Ministry said.
“Each team in the RRT would comprise an epidemiologist, public health specialist, microbiologist and a medical and paediatric specialist and other experts [entomologist among others] to travel at short notice to investigate suspected outbreak,” the release added.
The Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme would track clustering of acute febrile illness and seek primary cause, if any, among those who travelled to areas with the ongoing transmission in the two weeks preceding the onset of illness.