To counter Zika, we need more ‘health literacy’

opinion June 29, 2016 01:00

By The Nation

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While relatively few people in Thailand have been infected by the virus, not enough know where it comes from

Afforded no “honeymoon period” after being congratulated less than a month ago by the World Health Organisation on eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission, Thai health authorities are on high alert for any further spread of the Zika virus. Their goal is to exercise complete control and swiftly bring the Kingdom back to virus-free status.
The Zika virus has infected 97 people in 10 provinces since the beginning of the year, but is currently inactive on all but Beung Kan province in the Northeast and Phetchabun in the Central north. The Disease Control Department has offered assurance that the situation is indeed under control and is regarded as relatively less serious than when it afflicted wide areas of South America, but cautionary monitoring continues.
Spread by mosquitoes and related to dengue, Zika was first isolated in Uganda in 1947 but became an overt threat to public health as a pandemic that began last year. Public fear has reached levels similar to those that greeted the Ebola outbreak. Zika is among the primary worries at the WHO, which declared a “public health emergency of international concern”, chiefly because it can lead to birth defects and cause neurological maladies in people of all ages. 
Deepening fears is the fact that Brazil, where more than 90 per cent of the cases in the pandemic have occurred, is gearing up to host the Olympics in August and the Paralympic Games in September. While the disease can only be contracted through insect bites and by transmission during unprotected sex, pregnancy and blood transfusion, the concern is that such massive gatherings might compound the situation. 
The number of patients diagnosed in Thailand is not especially worrying – only five per year on average since the first case was identified here in 2012. But it is certainly troubling that there is no vaccine as yet. For this reason health authorities have to focus on prevention, and their mission is not an easy one. While Thais are somewhat knowledgeable about mosquito-borne diseases, their “health literacy” is inadequate in terms of safe sex – even after decades of dealing with HIV and Aids.
The most common of mosquito species is the same one that’s carrying the Zika virus, dengue and the lesser-known chikungunya. Thailand has long struggled to limit the threat of dengue fever as well, and yet few people recognise the importance of mosquito control. Less than a fifth of the respondents to a DDC Poll earlier this month said they made any effort to control mosquitoes in and around their residences, which includes making sure there’s no stagnant water where they can breed. 
The Disease Control Department has done well in educating the public about this avoidable risk in residential areas. Now, the potential for a Zika epidemic ought to be more widely advertised in a bid to motivate more people to eliminate insect-breeding areas. This is another case of everyone having to be involved if the campaign is to achieve success. Once everyone got on board in the fight against HIV, the number of infections came down significantly. 
Confronting Zika and any other health threat that comes along in the future needs the cooperation and help of most householders just as much as it requires the leadership of policy-makers in government and the bureaucracy. We need the public to be fully aware of the risks surrounding mosquito bites and unprotected sex, and if it has to be an item on the national agenda, then the sooner the better.
From the point of view of the public and private sectors, any investment in health promotion is worthwhile, not only for the wellbeing of the populace but also for the sake of our future sustainable economy. The more health-literate people become and the more the country has to gain.