African governments should remain vigilant against spread of Zika virus: expert

African governments should remain vigilant against spread of Zika virus: expert

African governments and health ministries should remain vigilant against the spread of the Zika virus, which has affected millions in the Americas, a Kenyan medical expert said on Monday.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the mosquito-borne virus has spread to 23 countries and territories in the Americas. And in many affected regions, the virus is strongly suspected to have caused unprecedented cases of microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and damaged brains.

The virus has also been reported in the West African nation of Cape Verde, sparking fears of further outbreaks on the continent, which is already battling other mosquito-borne diseases like malaria.

Dr. Ruchika Kohli, a clinical pathologist at Pathologists Lancet Kenya, a Nairobi-based pathology laboratory, said there may not be a rapid spread of the virus in Africa in the short term, but urged governments to remain vigilant against the possibility.

“With international travel and international trade, the reality of Zika spreading to the rest of the world including Africa is a reality. In terms of are we gearing up for a Zika epidemic or pandemic now? No, I don’t think we need to be worried at that scale. But of course, I think our government, our health ministry need to be aware that there is a potential of spread into our country,” she said.

Kohli added that much work needs to done to learn about the virus.

“There might be an element of immunity that is existent in the African population. But is it the same strain of the Zika virus from the 1940s or is it a new strain, or is it even the Zika virus that’s causing the microcephaly or not? There’s a lack of information. We have more questions than we have answers,” she said.

The WHO declared the Zika outbreak a global emergency on Monday. Experts hope that the declaration will trigger more international funding and greater efforts to stop the outbreak, as well as prompt research into possible treatments and vaccines.

Zika, which is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes species, was first discovered in Uganda in 1947. It has spread widely in the Western hemisphere, especially across the Americas, since last May.