The World Health Organization has convened an emergency committee to discuss the “explosive” spread of the Zika virus, which has been linked to thousands of birth defects in Latin America. It is a deeply concerning pandemic that has now spread to almost 23 countries, which makes it all the more possible for the virus to reach Pakistan as well. A WHO scientist estimated that there could be 3-4 million Zika infections in the Americas over the next year. The rapid spread of the virus has prompted governments across the world to issue a warning to pregnant women against travelling to the areas where it has been detected.

There is no vaccine or cure for Zika, which has been linked to microcephaly, a serious condition that can cause lifelong developmental problems. The Aedes Aegypti mosquito that also carries the dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya viruses transmits Zika Virus. A dengue outbreak in 2010-2011 had our government scrambling to contain the spread of the disease and despite its best efforts there were hundreds of deaths across Pakistan. Our country is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and birth rates in the country remain high as ever. We are completely unprepared and ill equipped to deal with the Zika virus if it was to cross our borders and this is a cause of great alarm.

In some countries in Latin America e.g. El Salvador have already advised women against getting pregnant until 2018. A directive like that would be completely ineffective in Pakistan. The only possible advice experts can dispense is to use mosquito repellents and destroy breeding grounds of mosquitoes because a vaccine may not become available for years. Pakistan should also issue a strict travel ban on pregnant women and couples that are travelling to the affected countries. People arriving from high-risk areas should first undergo thorough screening to rule out infection. The government must step up its efforts to eliminate the high risk that the Zika Virus poses to the poor people of this country who have no access to the most basic healthcare, let alone protection from new intimidating diseases.