Zika Virus: The Power of Information

On February 1st, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders in some areas affected by the Zika virus a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" (PHEIC).

In light of this designation, I welcome the launch of the Strategic Response Framework and Joint Operations Plan by the WHO and its partners. This framework, with its focus on surveillance, response, and research, is an important step in guiding the international response to the spread of the Zika virus. The implementation cost of this strategy is estimated to be $56 million.

Global public health emergencies, with their serious social and economic implications, are of concern to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, which held a briefing on the Zika virus on February 16th.

What have we learned from previous health emergencies such as avian flu and Ebola? Governments can experience fiscal deficits due to increased expenditures on healthcare and social protection programmes. Travel advisories can negatively impact the business of tourism industries. Labour productivity can decrease if workers fall sick or need to care for sick family members. Women, who are the most vulnerable, often shoulder the caregiving for the sick.

And one of the most important lessons we have learned is that "rumors" can be detrimental to the efforts to address any public health emergency as they often spread fear based on unsubstantiated claims. As such, we are in great need of evidence-based information and education rather than mere speculation. Indeed, more research is needed on the possible linkages between the Zika virus and microcephaly as well as other neurological disorders.

The experience of my own country, the Republic of Korea, in the outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) last year demonstrated the power of providing accurate information to the public in responding to the outbreak. These lessons learned demonstrate the utility and need for targeted communication campaigns to educate affected communities on essential protection and prevention measures.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reflects the importance of public health in achieving sustainable development. Strengthening health systems at the local, national, and international levels must be a priority if we want to safeguard against future outbreaks.

A holistic approach to this is vital. Our health systems and institutions must also be equipped to respond to the needs of infected women and men, children born with microcephaly, and their families, especially their mothers.

We must also consider the environmental dimensions of outbreaks and explore possible contributing factors such as climate change and the recent El Niňo phenomenon.

The world's most vulnerable are counting on our support to build their resilience to the Zika virus and other future global public health threats. International collaboration through strong and effective multilateral systems will be indispensable moving forward.