Zika and dengue among viruses that could spark the ‘next pandemic’

Insect-borne pathogens including Zika and dengue could spark the next pandemic, the World Health Organization has warned, amid mounting signs that the risks they pose “is increasing”.

More than two years after the coronavirus emerged and lapped the globe, experts are scrambling to put strategies in place to prevent the next outbreak from escalating into a pandemic.

Top of the list is tackling arboviruses, a group of pathogens – including Zika, yellow fever, Chikungunya and dengue – which are spread by arthropods such as mosquitoes and ticks.

“We have been through two years of Covid-19 pandemic and we have learned the hard way what [it costs] not to be sufficiently prepared for high impact events,” Dr Sylvie Briand, director of the Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness team at the WHO, said at a briefing on Thursday.

“We had [a] signal with Sars in 2003 and the experience of the influenza 2009 pandemic – but there were still gaps in our preparedness,” she added. “The next pandemic could, very likely, be due to a new arbovirus. And we also have some signals that the risk is increasing.”

Already, arboviruses present a public health threat in tropical and sub-tropical areas where approximately 3.9 billion people live. But prevalence is growing.

Since 2016 more than 89 countries have faced Zika outbreaks, Dr Briand said, while yellow fever risk has “been on the rise since the early 2000’s”. Meanwhile the number of dengue cases reported to WHO has risen from roughly 505,000 in 2000, to 5.2 million in 2019.

‘diseases of our time’

“These diseases are diseases of our time,” warned Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a former member of the UK’s Sage advisory group. He said the drivers of outbreaks – including climate change, urbanization and globalization – are “things of the 21st century”, which could see yellow fever arrive in Asia or dengue thrive in Africa.

“The links between Central and South America, southern United States, southern Europe and all other parts of the world means that the mosquitoes – which are some of the most remarkable things on Earth – are adapting to different communities,” he added. “In the context of the 21st century, this is why these diseases are just so important.”

The experts were speaking at the launch of the WHO’s new Global Arbovirus Initiative, which aims to bring together work to tackle insect-borne threats under one roof.

Researchers in countries from Brazil to Senegal have been working on arboviruses for decades, but this is the first time a global strategy has been presented. It includes plans to improve disease surveillance, putting early warning systems in place and developing new treatments, vaccines and diagnostics.

“As urban populations continue to expand, the threat of these diseases grows more alarming,” said Dr Ren Minghui, assistant director-general of the WHO. “As close living arrangements amplify the spread of this virus, we must address these challenges now to prevent catastrophic impact on health systems in the future.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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