Atlanta, Nov. 13, 2016 (PAHO/WHO) - The fight against the Zika virus "is not a hundred-meter race. This is a marathon in which science and public health need to work hand in hand," Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, told delegates at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene today.

In a keynote address to the scientific group's annual meeting, Etienne said, "There is a still long way to go on Zika. The development of affordable new tools by the scientific community, including diagnostic tests and a vaccine against Zika, as well as innovation in vector control, is an urgent priority.   Our health systems will need to be prepared to ensure such new tools are introduced and that their benefits reach everyone, not merely a few." 

Dr. Etienne at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene
Photo credit: ASTMH

Etienne recounted Zika's sudden apparition in Brazil in May 2015 and its rapid spread throughout the Americas, noting, "No one could have imagined two years ago that our children would be affected by microcephaly as a result of this once-dormant villain.  Regardless of the cause, a child with microcephaly means a complete family catastrophe."

In the Region of the Americas, "Zika was first confirmed while we were preparing for Ebola and responding to chikungunya," Etienne said. "It was astute front-line healthcare workers who first realized that they were detecting something unusual. Indeed, our Zika experience proves once again that good clinical judgment and awareness of atypical events are crucial for the timely detection of emerging diseases. It also points to the importance of investing in the health workforce as the first line of defense against emerging disease threats," she added.

Latin America and the Caribbean have approximately 500 million persons living in areas at risk for transmission of Zika virus, and "It is clear that the impact of this virus could be significant and could place an important burden on health services, especially in the treatment of serious complications associated with infection," Etienne said. 

Etienne recognized the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene "for its determined efforts to advocate for the prioritization of infectious diseases in the public health agenda, including neglected infectious diseases, malaria, and Zika." She said recent outbreaks "have shown clearly why it is so crucial to strengthen and maintain essential public health capacities to prevent, detect, and respond to public health threats, regardless of their source."

"We commend the Government of the United States for its pledge to invest over one billion dollars in assisting countries throughout the world in reaching their core capacity requirements through its Global Health Security Agenda.   PAHO is committed to expediting the catalytic role of the Global Health Security Agenda to achieving and sustaining the IHR core capacities in the Region of the Americas. This is a major undertaking that requires significant investment. If we have learned anything from the threats posed by influenza H1N1, Ebola, MERS and Zika, it is that a threat in one country is a threat everywhere," she concluded.