Scientists prepare for potential Zika virus outbreak in Southern Europe

With its transient population of university students and migrant laborers, divided by the River Po, the Italian city of Turin is an ideal site of transmission. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

Researchers from the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ESCMID) are developing tools to monitor the Zika virus, as it is highly likely that it will reach Southern Europe, according to the group.

The scientists are concerned that the rapid spread of the Zika virus in the Americas poses a significant risk to residents in Southern European countries such as France, Italy and Spain, which in the past have recorded cases of dengue fever.

Zika has been deemed a global emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and has been compared to the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The WHO estimates that the spread of the virus in South and Central America could lead to four million new cases in 2016.

>>Read: Ebola’s last stand: Epidemic in West Africa nearing conclusion

Though the Zika virus is spread by the Aedes mosquito, it can also be passed on through blood transfusions and unprotected sex. Zika has been linked to serious birth defects, such as microcephaly, which is associated with small infant head sizes, as well as neurological impairment.

For Europeans, there is already a risk of catching the infection if they travel to affected countries such as Brazil, Columbia and Paraguay, or if they have unprotected sex with someone who has recently returned from an affected area. Blood donated by those who have been recently infected also poses a risk.

Furthermore, ESCMID scientists say that the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro later this year not only pose a threat to the residents of Brazil, but also to the attendees.

Preventing outbreaks

Researchers now want to find out why the virus was able to spread so rapidly, and why such huge outbreaks did not occur before. To prevent future outbreaks, it is also crucial to know how else it can be transmitted apart from via mosquito bites.

>>Read: Mozambique goes to war with malaria

Meanwhile, developing better diagnostic tools and improving the monitoring of the virus’ spread are the most important issues for researchers

Emerging and re-emerging infections usually arise from resource-limited countries, and since the infrastructure for diagnostics is not well-established, the timely diagnosis and control of outbreaks is often late. For this reason, international collaboration on the building of laboratories, and technology transfer, is essential.

>>Read: Commission earmarks €10 million for Zika virus research

“The emergence of Zika virus soon after the Ebola outbreak is yet another reminder for the urgent need for a coordinated global effort to have sufficiently resourced rapid response groups for proactive surveillance and conduct of priority research in emergency situations,” said Eskild Petersen from Aarhus University, a committee member of the ESCMID.

The European Commission has already earmarked €70 million from the EU’s budget to research into vaccines for the Zika virus, while the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which regulates drugs in the EU, on Monday (8 February) set up a task force to advise companies working on vaccines and medicines against the virus.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on 1 February formally declared the Zika virus a global emergency. Labelling the virus an international health threat is meant to increase the chances of getting it under control with the help of the WHO's expertise, personnel and resources.

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