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Zika virus

Cuba is a remarkable Zika success story, containing the virus to three local infections

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 2:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 11:12pm

Six months after President Raul Castro declared war on the Zika virus in Cuba, a militarised nationwide campaign of intensive mosquito spraying, monitoring and quarantine appears to be working.

Cuba is among the few countries in the Western Hemisphere that have so far prevented significant spread of the disease blamed for birth defects in thousands of children. Only three people have caught Zika in Cuba. Thirty have been diagnosed with cases of the virus they contracted outside the island, according to Cuban officials.

 Many are now watching to see whether Cuba is able to maintain control of Zika or will drop its guard and see widening infection like so many of its neighbours. The battle against Zika is testing what Cuba calls a signal accomplishment of its single-party socialist revolution — a free health-care system that assigns a family doctor to every neighbourhood, with a focus on preventive care and maternal and paediatric health.

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US government scientists fly to Havana in November for a two-day meeting on animal-borne viruses such as Zika, the first conference of its kind since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations a year ago.

So far, there have been about 40 cases of Zika caused by mosquito bites in Florida. Health officials don’t expect widespread outbreaks in the mainland US but there are thousands of cases in Puerto Rico and countries such as Brazil and Venezuela are struggling with large-scale infection. 

International medical experts familiar with Cuba say other countries can learn from Cuba’s intense focus on preventing disease, which led the government to decimate the mosquito population by spraying virtually every neighbourhood in Cuba this spring.

“Cuba’s response has been strong and effective,” said Dr Cristian Morales, the World Health Organization’s representative in Cuba. “It has to do with the capacity to organise the population. Applying it to other countries, other contexts, would be extremely difficult.”

Other elements of Cuba’s success so far against Zika may simply not apply to other nations because they are inextricably tied to a form of government unique in the Western hemisphere.

Most aspects of life in Cuba are controlled by a single-party state that rigorously monitors citizens’ activities. From neighbourhood doctors to reporters to block watch captains, most people in Cuba work for a massive government apparatus whose components all ultimately answer to a single unelected leader, Raul Castro, who heads the military, the state and the Communist Party.

In February, as Zika spread through South America, Castro announced that he would be deploying the army to spray homes and workplaces because of the failings of civilian government fumigators, whom Cubans frequently brushed off to avoid the smelly, noisy filling of their homes with insecticidal fog.

In the following weeks, Cubans cities, towns and villages filled with olive-clad soldiers moving door-to-door with handheld foggers, and using sprayer trucks to blanket entire streets with clouds of insecticide.

Cuba’s approach compares favourably to the effort in Florida, where officials are spraying areas where Zika cases have already started cropping up, said Carlos Espinal, director of the Global Health Consortium at Florida International University in Miami.

“They started very early in advance of the Zika virus,” he said. “Once you start going behind the cases then it’s complicated, you’re just detecting once the transmission is already in place.”