by Global Health Security Correspondent and Sarah Newey, The Telegraph, November 5, 2019
The Zika virus has been picked up for the first time in Europe, in what an expert has branded a “wake-up call” for the continent.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has confirmed that three cases found in August in the French Riviera town of Hyères were transmitted locally, rather than being brought home by travellers.
Although around 2,400 cases of Zika have been detected in Europe since 2015 - when the outbreak in South America took off - all these infections were picked up and brought back by tourists visiting other continents.
But the three new cases were acquired locally - people in France were bitten by Asian tiger mosquitoes infected with the virus.
“It’s one thing for travellers to come back to a country with a disease, that happens all the time,” Professor James Logan, head of the department of disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Telegraph.
“It’s another thing completely when a disease is transmitted locally as it demonstrates capacity. We now have a new exotic disease in Europe,” he said. “In many ways this is a bit of a wake up call for the continent.”
Prof Logan added that it is likely that there were more Zika infections in France in the summer which were not detected.
“A lot of people can have Zika without any symptoms, [so] you’re not going to catch every case,” he said. “The fact that there have been three suggests there have been more, but we might never know the true extent.”
Zika is generally a mild virus, causing a fever, rash or headache - although most people infected will never develop symptoms.
But the disease is dangerous for pregnant women because it can lead to premature births, miscarriages and birth defects - including microcephaly, which affected some 2,000 children in Brazil. There is also an increased risk of neurological complications, including Guillain-Barré syndrome.
The presence of the disease in Europe is not entirely surprising, as the Asian tiger mosquito (or Aedes albopictus) has gained a stronghold in much of the continent.
“This species has spread throughout most of Europe now,” Prof Logan said. “It has invaded new countries and become established due to increasing temperatures and climate change making conditions more favourable for them to breed. Increased travel has also played a role.”
In March, the UK's Department of Health warned that warming temperatures could bring diseases including Zika and malaria to Britain. And global health experts have urged countries to prepare for climate change to bring infectious diseases into new regions.
Already in 2019, concerns seem to have been validated - severe dengue outbreaks have spread across the globe, tick-borne encephalitis has been identified in the UK and now locally-acquired Zika has been found in France.
But Prof Logan warned that the UK and Europe are not doing enough to prepare for the introduction of new threats - echoing a report in September which warned that the world is unprepared for new disease outbreaks.
“I think Europe and UK not particularly good at doing active surveillance on this sort of thing - we need more investment in systems and processes and people on the ground,” he said.
However, according to the ECDC, the risk of developing Zika in France remains “very low”. And the organisation said that the seasonal weather should stamp out the virus.
“As temperatures are progressively decreasing during autumn, the environmental conditions are currently not favourable for sustained transmission,” the ECDC said. “The risk for the population, including pregnant women and their unborn children, is low.”
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This article was written by Global Health Security Correspondent and Sarah Newey from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].