ISLAMABAD: Though the Ministry of National Health Services (NHS) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have been saying that the Zika virus is not a big threat for Pakistanis, on Friday the government took the matter seriously as national athletes will be leaving for Brazil to participate in the Olympics being held there in summer this year.

Brazil is one of the countries in which the virus has widely spread. A guideline may be devised for the safety of the Pakistani players.

At a ‘National consultation on Zika virus preparedness and response’ chaired by Minister for National Health Services Saira Afzal Tarar, the participants were told that the disease had been recognised as a public health emergency due to its effects on pregnant women in the form of birth defects.

The cases of birth defects reported in Brazil from 2001 to 2011 were on an average 163 per year. However, the figures for 2014-16 have jumped to 4,783 cases per year, including 76 deaths.

Dr Asad Hafeez, the director general national health services, told Dawn that usually 40 to 50 Pakistani players participated in the Olympics.

“We called the Pakistan Sports Board to come and discuss the issue as it is a matter of safety of the national players.”

Pakistani athletes are set to take part in Olympics to be held in Brazil this summer

He said because of the prevalence of the virus, athletes of different countries were still considering whether to participate in the event or not.

The Zika virus, which transmits through a mosquito, is spreading in the Americas with estimated over three million infections during a year.

Almost 80pc of the affected people do not feel sick and others have minor symptoms such as rash, fever or joint pain.

But the virus is reportedly dangerous in pregnant women as their babies can have abnormalities such as a small head. Even death of babies can occur.

The Pakistani athletes can become carriers of the virus in Brazil.

Dr Hafeez said though the WHO had declared the virus a public health emergency, so far travel restrictions were not imposed. So the athletes can go to Brazil but a guideline should be issued for them to ensure their safety.

“Unfortunately, the world is not aware much of the disease at the moment. However, research is going on and within a few weeks the international community will be in a better position to speak about the disease,” he said.

“We have been considering issuing an advisory for the personal protection of the athletes because the disease spreads through mosquitoes. The athletes will not only be informed about the disease but a training session will also be arranged for them,” he said.

“However, we have over a month because the names of the athletes will be finalised by the end of March or in April. After that, we will be in a better position to take a decision,” he said.

According to a statement issued by the ministry of national health services, the minister told the gathering that the Zika virus had been reported from 33 countries mostly in Latin America.

“Both Zika virus and dengue are caused by the same mosquito which is prevalent in our country and that Zika itself is closely related to the dengue virus and calls for extreme vigilance and close monitoring of the situation in Pakistan,” the minister said.

She said her ministry had responded to the threat of Ebola with the development of an action plan and was building response capacities through the establishment of skilled teams at the federal, provincial and district levels.

Likewise, the ministry in partnership with the provincial departments and technical partners was also preparing to undertake measures for the prevention and control of the potential spread of the Zika virus.

The meeting was informed that currently no Zika virus case had been reported from the WHO region in which Pakistan was located.

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2016



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