With the recent return of yellow fever to Brazil, Colombian health authorities are on high alert. The disease has not made an appearance in the country’s headlines for several years, but is currently making a comeback in Brazil where there is a campaign to mass vaccinate the population. In response to this alert, which was issued by the World Health Organization, Colombia has begun to take action in addressing the possibility of any outbreaks.
The cycle of yellow fever in Brazil is normally “sylvatic”, spreading through monkeys and mosquitoes in the jungle, but the current outbreak – which is the worst in recent history – has now extended beyond the Amazon and towards the coast and borders. This has greatly confused health officials, doctors, and specialists who believe that an epidemic in the country’s urban areas could be devastating. Although Brazil is acting fast to administer vaccines which are increasingly in short supply, it continues to struggle to get the virus under control. Targeting big cities, it is feared that the situation could get a lot worse before it improves. According to the disease expert Dr. Alberto Rizo a yellow fever outbreak has “all the elements of a combined catastrophe.”
Yellow Fever is a viral infection present in the central areas of South America and some tropical parts of Africa. The disease is spread by mosquitos which unfortunately, due to climate change are now moving to areas of high altitude that are beginning to increase in temperature. Following the bite, the majority of cases are without symptoms but, occasionally, after a period of three to six days some develop a high temperature and red eyes that can lead to fatal liver and kidney failure.
Claudia Zoppi, a spokesperson for the Bogotá-based health entity iCare, believes that the outburst that started at the end of 2016 is the result of a failure to control mosquito reproduction. There is much concern over this, as people are not making enough effort to avoid infested areas such as ponds, lakes or stagnant waters where mosquitoes are commonly found.
The government is educating the population about the risks of visiting places such as Santa Marta or the department of Chocó, but the message is not getting across and the number of fatalities are drastically rising. Tropical disease experts strongly recommend getting the highly effective vaccination which is available, providing immunity to 95% of the people that receive it. “Taking preventive measures to ensure a safe vacation, should always be a priority,” said Zoppi.
The yellow fever vaccine is manufactured in Brazil and is used in many countries including the United States. It gives life protection and is 100% effective in preventing the disease, ten days after it is injected. Alternative forms of protection are recommended to those who cannot receive the vaccine, including people over the age of sixty, anyone with a compromised immune system, pregnant women and children less than a year old.
There are several preventative measures that should be taken by foreigners before visiting Colombia. Although it depends on the area, Zoppi states that it is better to be prepared. The vaccination for Yellow Fever is essential when visiting the Caribbean Coast or the Amazon, and both Hepatitis B and Tetanus are important in case of any contact with blood or open wounds.
Although both Chikungunya and Zika are without a cure, there are still many ways to prevent getting infected. Zoppi says that mosquitoes are most active between six and nine in the morning, as well as four and six in the evening. To avoid getting bitten, Zoppi recommends wearing long sleeves and trousers and using a repellent that has a high level of deet (over 20%). It is vital to take as many precautions as possible, especially now that many people are at risk.
Chikungunya is a viral disease also transmitted by mosquitoes. It causes fever and severe joint pain and affected over 350,000 Colombians in 2015. With some 100 new cases reported across India last month, health authorities are concerned with how easily mosquitoes are spreading diseases throughout the world, despite their short life span. South Asia is home to a significant proportion of the global burden of infectious disease, with 390 million dengue infections occurring every year. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently confirmed outbreaks of avian influenza in China and a “cluster of unexplained illnesses and deaths” in Liberia where 17 people have fallen ill with symptoms that seem to mimic the Ebola in its early stage. Yet, specimens analyzed from seven people who have died from this mysterious illness came back negative for Ebola.
With Brazil on the verge of a serious yellow fever outbreak and Chikungunya spreading across heavily-populated India, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is concerned that with the start of a prolonged hot summer, Zika remains a major public health risk, especially for women in early stages of pregnancy.
According to Zoppi, vaccines have not changed over the years, rather the way they are distributed. “It is important that these preventative injections do not harm the human body and scientists are therefore working on improving formulas that produce less reactions”, she said. For Dr.Rizo vaccinating the “high risk” groups against yellow fever must be a priority for the national government because “the arrival of any disease is an enemy that must be stopped at all costs.”