The US health monitor, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has issued an alert asking pregnant women not to travel to India, particularly Rajasthan, due to a reported outbreak of Zika, the mosquito-borne disease.
The alert comes at a time when the Union Health Ministry has reported over 153 cases of Zika from Rajasthan in October and November. Some cases were reported from Gujarat, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, too, mainly in people who had travelled from Rajasthan.
Following the CDC alert, tourism professionals in Rajasthan are bracing for an impact on foreign inflow during the peak season — October to March — that covers Christmas and New Year. More than 35 lakh Indian and foreign tourists visited the state in December 2017.
New battlefront opens for health and tourism
Apart from impacting the tourism sector, particularly in Rajasthan, the US Zika alert will push the official health apparatus on the backfoot at a time when it is battling several other endemic mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria. More so, when the belief within the government is that Zika cases in India have been sporadic and contained in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.
“An outbreak of Zika virus has been reported in India. Public health officials in India have reported an unusual increase in the number of confirmed Zika cases in Rajasthan and surrounding states. Zika continues to be a risk throughout India,” stated the US alert issued on December 13.
“Pregnant women should not travel to areas with risk of Zika. This is because Zika infection during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects,” it said.
The US agency has classified its alert as level 2, which requires “enhanced protection”. The other levels on its three-tiered list are level 1, which calls for “usual precautions”, and level 3 that advises against “non-essential travel”.
According to the CDC, a pregnant woman “can pass Zika virus to her foetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects”.
When contacted, a Health Ministry official told The Indian Express: “Whatever cases there were have already been controlled.”
This is the third instance in recent times when Zika cases have been found in India. On May 15, 2017, the government reported three laboratory-confirmed cases detected in January in the Bapunagar area of Ahmedabad to the WHO. There was a clutch of cases reported from Krishnagiri district in Tamil Nadu, too.
Zika is a mosquito-borne infection spread by a virus. First identified in Uganda in 1947 among monkeys, it was detected in humans five years later. Sporadic cases have since been reported throughout the world since the 1960s.
In 2015, Brazil reported a major Zika outbreak, with researchers linking Zika to microcephaly, which leads to babies being born with small and underdeveloped brains.
However, research by scientists at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has shown that the Zika strain in India is less virulent and not associated with microcephaly.
Recently, the National Institute of Virology in Pune completed the genome sequencing of the Zika strain in India and concluded that it did not have the gene responsible for causing microcephaly in Brazil. According to officials, scientists are still monitoring the pregnancies of 64 women who tested positive for Zika in Jaipur.
“Many people infected with Zika virus only have mild symptoms or do not get sick. However, infection during pregnancy can cause severe birth defects. Because there is no vaccine or medicine for Zika, travellers should take steps to prevent getting Zika during travel. They should also take actions to prevent spreading it when they return home,” the US CDC said.
In India, the National Center for Disease Control recently designated 35 sites across the country for Zika testing, including AIIMS facilities in Delhi, Bhopal and Raipur.