FAO: Against Zika virus, no one can fight alone

Maria Helena Semedo, deputy director-general at the Food and Agriculture Organization. Photo by: Alessandra Benedetti / FAO

Already reported in more than 30 countries, the Zika virus, which is mainly transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is sowing panic in the Americas and across the globe. According to the World Health Organization, which last month declared the virus outbreak “a global emergency” due to its link to a spike in the number of babies born with microcephaly, the virus could infect between 3 and 4 million people in the Americas alone this year. Is the panic justified?

Devex spoke to Food and Agriculture Organization Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo about her personal experience with the virus and FAO’s recommendations to minimize the threat by reducing the spread of the virus.

“I got the Zika virus when I was in Kenya last December, and it was just like a flu. I had malaria and it was much worse,” Semedo told Devex. “The main problem concerning Zika virus is how it affects pregnant women and their babies … In Cape Verde, we had 4,000 cases, and in this moment there are 140 pregnant women who are being monitored. Some of them gave birth and the kids weren’t microcephalus, yet the last research shows that there is indeed a correlation between Zika and babies’ microcephaly.”

Here are more highlights from our conversation with Semedo.

What is the main obstacle to containing the virus, particularly in the Americas?

The obstacle is that there are a lot of things we don’t know. Establishing with certainty the vector of transmission is an issue: it could be through the mosquitos, some in the United States argue it could be also through sex, or through blood, but this is not proven yet. The WHO is investing in research to find out the origins [of the virus] and to understand why it’s spreading like this over a very short period. We also believe that the spread could be linked to the El Nino [weather] phenomenon, but such a link isn’t yet proven.

For example, in the Americas where El Nino occurs, we have droughts but floods as well. With the floods, the high amount of stagnant water creates a good environment for the breeding of the mosquitos. Geographically, the phenomenon occurs mainly in Latin America, especially in one of the areas where El Nino is devastating the environment. We call it “El Corridor Seco.” Probably, there is a link between the climate change phenomenon and what is happening.

Under the lead of the World Health Organization, the United Nations system is mobilizing a coordinated response to Zika aimed at minimizing the threat in affected countries and reducing the risk of further international spread. What actions need to be taken?

The WHO is calling for an integrated response to the crisis, in which all the United Nations agencies and all the stakeholders and governments can join forces and have a concerted action. FAO has issued a number of recommendations to tackle the crisis.

Regarding the environment, the problem is that spray and pesticides used against mosquitoes can affect the animals, the water, and the land. Our recommendation is that if the use of insecticide and pesticide can’t be avoided, to use only pesticides included in the official list — the ones which do not affect the environment and human health — and that those have to be applied only by specific people who know how to do it — the proper quantity, from the proper distance. Control and follow-up is also necessary.

A second recommendation concerns rural areas, where in the houses there are areas of stagnant [water], and that water is used for human consumption and irrigation as well. The tendency is to advise [residents] to throw the water away, but if the people do so, they will not have water. So what we advise is to keep the water in a safe containers. The containers should be covered, and then the water could be used for human consumption and irrigation.

WHO has suggested mosquito control as part of the response to the Zika virus. Does FAO plan to take actions in this regard?

Concerning the areas around lakes, the so-called retention areas, one action we plan in order to control mosquitos is the use of a fish called larvivorous fish that can destroy the mosquitos’ larvae. By spreading this fish in the lakes on a big surface, we could create an environment hostile to the virus and the spread would be contained. This method has been already used in Brazil, and more recently in Vietnam with a reduction of up to 79 percent of mosquito infestation. What we have to do is to scale it up.

Another action we are taking is in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency: we have a joint department [focused] on agriculture where we use atomic techniques to make the male mosquitos infertile, so that they can’t reproduce. We did that with mosquitoes to fight the spread of malaria, as well as with other animals. It is a technique that works, but in the long term.

What advice does FAO give to populations in endemic areas in order to limit the risks of being bitten?

One measure, as per in malaria, is to use the mosquito nets, but what we have learnt is that the mosquitoes that spread Zika bite in the mornings, not during the night like the ones spreading malaria. Still, even if it is not as effective as for malaria, we still recommend the use of nets at home and also we invite the population to wear proper clothes, for example long sleeves, and to use clear colors.

The actions to take in urban and rural areas are different. We have many more lakes and stagnant waters in the rural areas, and that is where the water is used for irrigation and the land is used for production. So interventions in the rural areas are crucial. It’s also very delicate. We tend to consider only the direct impact on human health, but plant and animal health are to be considered as well, especially when we spray without any control and follow-up. We are trying together with the different governments and with the WHO to recommend those kind of actions, and to see how they can be implemented at the local level.

What role do you foresee for the private sector in stopping the crisis?

To stop the crisis, we need to go to the roots of the crisis, and avoid the conditions where the mosquito can breed. The problem is that solutions, such as those mentioned previously [Larvivorous fish and the sterilization of the male] are long term solutions. At the moment, we are working with the WHO and the IAEA. All stakeholders should join forces in combatting the virus spreading and educating the population.

The private sector, the ones producing the pesticide and insecticide, should be careful and follow the recommendations issued by FAO and WHO — a list of allowed products — for insecticides. The private sector can help with financing resources and research. It can also play a role in raising awareness and educating the population to be better prepared, as well as to reduce the exposure to the virus. Its contribution will be needed also to rebuild the health system, health infrastructure, and the agriculture sector in the affected areas.

Is more staff needed?

Sometimes the problem isn’t the staff but the communication. There are already structures in place, so what we need is to better use those structures — for example the radio, and cellphones — we should use them to send messages to the population. I think we have the technology, the problem is how we can exploit it to best raise awareness regarding the virus. The big crisis of Ebola showed that no one can fight alone. We are now called again with a new health challenge, and we need to join forces — to act immediately and be very efficient when we act.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Eva Donelli

    As a correspondent based in Brussels, Eva Donelli covers EU development policy issues and actors, from the EU institutions to the international NGO community. Eva was previously at the United Nations Regional Information Center for Western Europe and in the European Parliament's press office. As a freelance reporter, she has contributed to Italian and international magazines covering a wide range of issues, including EU affairs, development policy, social protection and nuclear energy. She speaks fluent English, French and Spanish in addition to her native Italian.