India has officially reported three cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that the cases, which included a 34-year-old new mother and a 22-year-old pregnant woman, had been detected in Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The cases have been confirmed by National Institute of Virology. Surprisingly, the first case was detected and confirmed months earlier but the Indian authorities did not make it public. Even the recent announcement was not a direct communication from the Indian government but a notification to the WHO which was then made public. Several questions have been raised as to whether it was ethical to keep such critical public health information hidden.
The information becomes even more critical in a country such as India: a long-known host for the vector Aedes aegypti. The mosquito population thrives in the country for multiple reasons such as climate, poor urban planning, and densely populated areas. The vector is the same carrier for other infections such as dengue and chikungunya. Thousands of dengue cases and deaths are reported each year from across the country, which shows how easily a new viral outbreak can spread.
Detection of even a single case of Zika is considered an outbreak and not reporting it misleads the doctors and the public health community: who would suspect and test for an infection when it’s not been reported in the area so far? Also, considering that the symptoms are common and can easily be confused with other viral infections like dengue, the infection may be difficult to detect, unless one is looking for it. With no treatment available, prevention is key.
The message is simple: public health communication is not optional.
In the case of global pandemics such as Zika, there’s an additional responsibility to keep the global public health community informed. Outbreaks in new countries must be reported so that the public health community can study if there are any mutations in the pathogen. It is vital that awareness is increased and responsive systems are built to tackle any such public health threats.
Shalini is a former television health journalist from India. She currently works with the Center For Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in New Delhi.
Competing interests: None declared.