The spectre of Zika has been impossible to ignore in recent months, with images of affected babies regularly covering our TV screens. While relatively little was known initially about the cause of this disease, new research now indicates a strong link between the spread of Zika and the poor water and sanitation services that are widespread across Brazil and other parts of Latin America.
What is Zika?
Zika, which first came to the world's attention in October 2015, is a virus which is potentially linked with both microcephaly (causing babies to be born with abnormally small heads) and Guillain-Barre syndrome (a neurological condition) as well as other mosquito-borne diseases.
How is Zika spread?
Like dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya, Zika is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which breeds in collections of stagnant water. In a country where 3 million people still practice open defecation and around 61% of human waste is dumped untreated into urban rivers, lakes and oceans, it's no wonder that Zika has been able to have such a devastating impact in Brazil. Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation commented, "We can engine sterile mosquitos or use scientific Internet tools to map data globally, but we should not forget that today 100 million people in Latin America still lack access to hygienic sanitation systems and 70 million people lack piped water in their places of residence."
A call to action
Outbreaks of mosquito-borne viruses such as dengue have been widespread across South and Central America in the last few years, so what is it about Zika that has finally alerted people to the need to improve levels of sanitation and water for society's poorest communities? "Symbolically, microcephaly has a stronger impact", argued Edison Carlos, Executive President of the Tratas Brazil Institute. "It has a baby's face while dengue is abstract, it moves people less despite the high mortality rate."
The spread of Zika highlights the need to adopt a holistic approach to basic sanitation, including adequate drainage, garbage disposal and encouraging people to turn over all containers, no matter how small to avoid the collection of standing water. Another tactic in the fight against Zika is the installation of urban storm systems and rainwater catchment basis to reduce flooding.
With the Olympics due to be held in Rio de Janeiro this summer, 2016 is certainly looking to be a busy year for Latin America's largest country. However, in light of this recent evidence about the spread of Zika, a challenge appears to have been set for the Brazilian Government to make it a priority to do whatever is possible to save the lives of some of its most vulnerable people.
The latest evidence surrounding the spread of Zika only emphasises the importance of the provision of adequate water and sanitation facilities as a basic human need. Just ask yourself where would be without them!