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Top health experts call for stepped-up action on West Nile virus, dengue and other vector-borne diseases

Washington, D.C., 4 April 2014 (PAHO/WHO) —Roughly 50% of people living in the Western Hemisphere are at risk of one or more diseases carried by mosquitoes, ticks, flies and other vectors, including West Nile virus, dengue, malaria and most recently chikungunya. In a "call to action" for World Health Day 2014, top health experts from North and South America and the Caribbean urged greater efforts by governments, communities and individuals to control the spread of these and other vector-borne diseases.

"Our region has achieved many successes in controlling vector-borne diseases," said the Director of the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), Carissa F. Etienne. "However, this success is being threatened by the expansion of mosquitoes and other vectors into new habitats and by the emergence of insecticide and drug resistance. PAHO and its partners are today calling for stepped-up action in the fight against vector-borne diseases in the Americas."

"We as a world are in some ways more vulnerable than ever," said Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "and that means that we as a world need to collaborate more effectively than ever so we can build the capacity to find new diseases, outbreaks and threats wherever they emerge promptly, and respond effectively."

In the Americas, the vector-borne diseases with a major public health impact include malaria, dengue, Chagas disease, schistosomiasis, West Nile virus and Lyme disease (in North America).  Some of these diseases have been present in the region for a long time, while others are recent arrivals.

The most recent vector-borne disease to establish itself in the Americas is chikungunya, a mosquito-borne viral disease that first appeared in Tanzania in the 1950s. In December 2013, two cases of locally acquired chikungunya were reported in the Caribbean island of Saint Maarten/Sint Martin. By the end of March 2014, more than 3,000 cases had been confirmed in 10 Caribbean countries.

"Chikungunya does not often result in death, but the joint pains and stiffness may last for months and even years," noted Minister of Health of Jamaica Fenton Ferguson, adding that governments and communities should focus prevention and control efforts on reducing the density of mosquito populations.

The Americas region has recently seen major successes in fighting vector-borne diseases. Cases of malaria, for example, declined 60% and malaria deaths declined 72% between 2000 and 2012. Seven countries of the Americas are now in the pre-elimination phase for malaria.

Admiral Tim Ziemer, U.S. Global Malaria Coordinator, said the work of PAHO/WHO member countries and the U.S.-supported Amazon Malaria Initiative have been critical to this success.

"The majority of the progress has been made by host country financing, which has been complemented by modest external funding by donors," said Ziemer. "In addition to the funding, we have seen improving collaboration across the full spectrum of partners."

In another significant achievement, Colombia last year became the first country to be verified as having eliminated onchocerciasis (also known as river blindness), which is carried by black flies. Key support for onchocerciasis elimination has been provided by the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program in the Americas (OEPA), an initiative led by the Carter Center that works with ministries of health to provide health education and channels Merck's donations of the antiparasitic drug Mectizan for mass administration to people at risk of the disease.

"OEPA is a wonderful example of international cooperation in this hemisphere to eliminate a disease," said Donald Hopkins, VP for Health Programs at The Carter Center. "The aim of course is to eliminate river blindness in the Americas, and we are very close to accomplishing that."

Jarbas Barbosa, Secretary of Health Surveillance of Brazil, described his country's efforts to fight dengue, a disease that was largely controlled in the mid 20th century but that resurged in the Americas between 1970 and 2000 following declining investments in vector control. Brazil has taken an integrated approach to the disease, Barbosa said, with significant investment in improving water and sanitation services for the population at risk.

The PAHO/WHO call to action for World Health Day 2014 calls on governments, communities, individuals and donors to take action toward further progress and to face future threats from vector-borne diseases. "Everyone has a role to play," said Etienne.

PAHO, founded in 1902, is the oldest international public health organization in the world. It works with its member countries to improve the health and the quality of life of the people of the Americas. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of WHO.

PAHO/WHO World Health Day Call to Action: "Step up the fight against vector-borne diseases in the Americas"

More: 10 vector-borne diseases that put the population of the Americas at risk