‘Small bites can be big threats’

-PAHO/WHO warns on World Health Day

Mosquitoes, ticks, flies and other insects can be far more than a nuisance. The diseases they carry-malaria, dengue, yellow fever, filaria, and many others-can cause serious illness and in some cases death.

On World Health Day 2014, the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) urged stepped-up action to prevent and control diseases transmitted by insects and other small organisms, known as “vectors.”

The theme for this year’s World Health Day was “Small bites, big threats, protect yourself and your environments from vector-borne diseases.” A statement from PAHO/WHO reminded governments and citizens not to forget that the fight against communicable diseases and infectious diseases is not yet won. It added that the attention on infectious diseases reduces as non-communicable diseases now dominate the global health agenda.

PAHO said these vector-borne diseases are a public health threat throughout the Americas and the risk of infection is high.

“Globalization, increased travel and shipping, climate change, and urban sprawl are all helping to expand the range of these diseases beyond traditional areas,” said PAHO/WHO Director Carissa F Etienne.

Vector-borne diseases with a significant impact include long-established diseases such as malaria, a parasitic disease transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes. Malaria is on the rise in Guyana with about 30,000 cases recorded in 2013.

Dengue, a potentially lethal viral disease carried by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes which are fully adapted to urban conditions. Reinfections can occur and present serious haemorrhagic symptoms.

Leishmaniasis (bush yaws), a parasitic disease transmitted by a variety of insects, present in Guyana. Some cases are diagnosed each year and can be fatal.

Yellow fever, another viral haemorrhagic disease carried by mosquitoes; Lymphatic filariasis (also known as “elephantiasis”), a parasitic infection caused by worms and transmitted by Culex mosquitoes.

More recent arrivals include chikungunya virus. Chikungunya illustrates how quickly and unpredictably vector-borne diseases can spread. First reported in the Caribbean in December 2013, it took less than three months to reach 10 Caribbean countries. By late March 2014, the region had over 15,000 suspected cases and 3,000 laboratory-confirmed cases.

Climate change has a significant role in the transmission of these diseases and their expansion. Therefore, PAHO said, integrated vector control can decrease the risk of disease transmission, since these diseases cannot spread if there is no contact between people and the vector. “Integrated vector control is aimed at optimizing and rationalizing the use of resources and tools by building country capacity, including surveillance, case monitoring and evaluation of actions, along with community health  education and promotion, and working together with partners and allies,” the statement said.

To mark World Health Day, PAHO/WHO collaborated with the Vector Control Unit of the Ministry of Health to set up an exhibition at the Queens College which provided information on what the unit is doing and what people could do to prevent vector-borne infectious diseases which place a high burden of illness and death on communities.

To prevent vector-borne diseases, PAHO/WHO recommends that people and communities adopt these simple but effective precautions: Wear long-sleeved clothing, apply insect repellent, and use window screens or bed nets as appropriate to reduce exposure to bites; and clean up around homes to eliminate vegetation, rubbish, and standing water that can serve as breeding sites for mosquitoes and other vectors.

In addition to these individual and community measures, the PAHO/ WHO World Health Day call to action advises what governments and health officials can do to fight vector-borne diseases. Priorities include supporting and strengthening public vector-control programmes, improving social and environmental conditions in areas at risk, and making sure that people who need drugs for prevention and treatment can get them.

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