Hot on the heels of the Ebola outbreak that wreaked havoc in West Africa, the Zika virus — a flu-like illness that normally causes mild symptoms but can be severe — is quickly spreading throughout Latin America. Brazil, which is at the epicenter of the current outbreak, estimates close to 1 million cases.
Last Monday, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan declared the Zika virus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Perhaps more alarming is a recently released report by a United Nations panel on health-crisis response that stated, “the high risk of major health crises is widely underestimated, and the world’s preparedness and capacity to respond is woefully insufficient.”
In both the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, political and economic factors like state incapacity and uneven development created conditions conducive to the spread of infectious disease. While a public health approach eventually managed to contain Ebola, rapid responses to infectious disease threats often fail to address root causes — inadequate healthcare systems, poor sanitation and waste management and endemic poverty. Defeating these root causes could end the pernicious cycle that creates out-of-control pandemics.
Different pathogens, same vulnerabilities
In Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, existing vulnerabilities such as low levels of human development, and weak and inadequate state health capacities, fostered Ebola’s quick spread and inhibited an adequate state response.
Countries currently responding to the Zika outbreak — Brazil, Colombia, and El Salvador — perform better on health and economic indicators. However, uneven and unequal development in the three countries as well as across Central and South America, are potential vulnerabilities that could complicate Zika control efforts.
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