Turkey not at risk for Zika, infectious disease expert says

Turkey not at risk for Zika, infectious disease expert says

Öykü Altuntaş - Doğan News Agency
Turkey not at risk for Zika, infectious disease expert says

Maria de Lourdes, who is nine months pregnant, poses for a picture at the IMIP hospital in Recife, Brazil, January 28, 2016. REUTERS Photo

The Zika virus does not pose a serious threat for Turkey due to geographical distance, says the head of the Turkish Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (KLIMIK), Professor Önder Ergönül, while warning that international travel to regions of outbreak risk pregnant women’s lives.

According to Professor Ergönül, who is also the chair of the American Hospital’s infectious diseases department, the rare presence of Aedes mosquitoes in Turkey has eased concerns amongst medical experts in Turkey.

Aedes mosquitoes cause widespread outbreaks of Zika, a virus thought to have links with birth defects among thousands of newborns particularly in the Americas. These mosquitoes mostly live in tropical and subtropical climates.

Ergönül told DHA in an exclusive interview that Turkish citizens could be infected just like other European travelers who have caught the disease during their visits to critical zones. “The world is smaller now; travelling is easier,” he added.

Following fear in South and Central America, people who have travelled to these regions from Denmark, the U.K. and Switzerland have recently caught the virus, increasing global alarm signals.

‘Death toll nearly zero’

According to research carried out in Brazil, “The risk of microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with heads that appear shrunken, is 20 times higher for pregnant women who have been infected [with the Zika virus], compared to women who have not,” Ergönül said.

However, Ergönül added, “The death toll of the virus is nearly zero and the indicated deaths in [medical] literature are known to have links with other health problems.”

‘Flu-like symptoms should be examined’

The virus’ threat to babies’ brain development has particularly “touched” people, said the professor. But in fact, there are many other viruses spreading in similar conditions, he added.

These viruses include Dengue Fever, Chikungunya Fever, the West Nile virus, which is found in temperate and tropical regions of the world, as well as Sandfly Fever, which was also spotted in Turkey.

According to Ergönül, Zika attracted attention “[because of] its ability to rapidly spread.”

However, this virus “cannot spread person to person” without the involvement of Aedes mosquitos, according to Ergönül. No matter, flu-like symptoms should be taken into account, as those infected show basic flu symptoms and it is a “disease with a good prognosis,” he said.

The virus can only spread person to person “if the virus mutates,” he said, adding “It has not mutated so far; but the risk continues.”

‘We will stick to WHO’s warnings’

The Zika virus has no special treatment or antiviral medication developed so far. But an early treatment using anti-Influenza medication could ease the symptoms, although this has been limited to a supportive treatment, he added.

“To develop vaccines against these sorts of viruses with good prognoses is mostly considered meaningless. It takes between five and 10 years to develop a vaccine and for a disease that can disappear itself, these efforts could be unnecessary. In this regard, we stick to the warnings of the World Health Organization [WHO],” he said.

Regarding debates on the potential relation between climate change and the outbreak of the Zika virus, Ergönül suggested that a certain link could only be revealed after years of work and monitoring. Thus, a relation cannot be predicted through mathematical modellings, despite the fact that climate change influences the life cycles of arthropods like mosquitos and acarids.

Meanwhile, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said they will convene an International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Feb. 1 about the Zika virus in Geneva, to ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

Who is Önder Ergönül?

Önder Ergönül, MD, MPH has been a professor of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology at Koç University, School of Medicine since 2011.

He is the editor of a book on the Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (2007, Springer). He received the Public Health Scientific award of the Turkish Medical Association in 2007. He has been the president of the Turkish Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases since 2013. Most recently, he was the lead publisher of “Emerging Infectious Diseases Clinical Case Studies,” which was written by Turkish scientists. The book was awarded by the British Medicine Association in this year’s Medical Book Awards in the category of public health among 630 books.