WHO slams ‘policy failures’ for Zika crisis

The spiralling crisis surrounding the Zika virus is due to decades of policy failures on mosquito control and poor access to family planning services, the Geneva-based World Health Organization said on Monday.

WHO slams 'policy failures' for Zika crisis
File photo: AFP

“The spread of Zika… (is) the price being paid for a massive policy failure that dropped the ball on mosquito control in the 1970s,” WHO chief Margaret Chan told the opening of the UN health agency's annual assembly.
Those failures have allowed the mosquito-borne virus to spread rapidly and create “a significant threat to global health,” Chan told some 3,000 delegates gathered from WHO's 194 member countries.
Experts agree that Zika is behind a surge in Latin America in cases of the birth defect microcephaly — babies born with abnormally small heads and brains — after their mothers were infected with the virus.
The virus, which also causes the rare but serious neurological disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome, in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, is mainly spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito but has also been shown to transmit through sexual contact.
Programmes in the 1950s and 60s targeted the aegypti in a bid to prevent the spread of dengue and yellow fever, which it also spreads, and all but eradicated the mosquito species from Central and South America.
But when the programmes were discontinued in the 1970s, the mosquito returned.
Chan also decried policy failures in the realm of reproductive rights.
Many of the hardest-hit countries in the ongoing Zika outbreak are conservative Catholic, and she warned their “failure to provide universal access to sexual and family planning services” had exacerbated the crisis.
With the virus now present in 60 countries, countless women who may want to delay pregnancy have no access to contraception, and even fewer to abortion.
Chan pointed out that Latin America and the Caribbean “have the highest proportion of unintended pregnancies anywhere in the world.”
“With no vaccines and no reliable and widely available diagnostic tests to protect women of childbearing age, all we can offer is advice,” she told the assembly.
“Avoid mosquito bites, delay pregnancy, do not travel to areas with ongoing transmission.”
In Brazil, the hardest-hit country, more than 1.5 million people have been infected with Zika, and nearly 1,400 cases of microcephaly have been registered since the outbreak began last year.
Researchers estimate that a woman infected with Zika during pregnancy has a one percent chance of giving birth to a baby with the birth defect.

'Not prepared to cope'

Zika is not new. The African strain of the virus was discovered in Uganda's tropical Zika forest in 1947, and an Asian strain has long circulated on that continent, without sparking concern.
On its own Zika is fairly benign, like a bad cold or a mild flu.
But when the Asian strain jumped to Latin America last year, it suddenly wreaked havoc in a population never before exposed to the virus.
Alarmingly, the WHO last week said the Asian strain was now for the first time spreading locally in an African country — Cape Verde — raising concern over what impact the strain might have on the population on that continent.
“The rapidly evolving outbreak of Zika virus warns us that an old disease that slumbered for six decades in Africa and Asia can suddenly wake up … on a new continent to cause a global health emergency,” Chan said.
Zika is not the only virus that has taken us by surprise.
Chan pointed especially to the recent Ebola disaster that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa, which revealed “the absence of even the most basic infrastructure” to deal with the outbreak.
Chan offered Monday's assembly “a stern warning”.
“What we are seeing now looks more and more like a dramatic resurgence of the threat from emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” cautioning: “The world is not prepared to cope.”

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Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I’m abroad?

Given how expensive health insurance premiums are in Switzerland, you may be tempted to suspend your policy while you are abroad. Is this possible?

Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I'm abroad?

Unlike the obligatory car insurance, which you can suspend temporarily by depositing your registration plates at the local motor vehicles office, rules pertaining to health insurance are much stricter.

As the Federal Office of Public Health explains it, “If you leave the country for a certain period to travel or study but do not take up residence abroad, you are still required to have [health] insurance in Switzerland”.

In other words, as long as you are a registered resident of Switzerland, regardless of your nationality or passport, you must keep your compulsory Swiss health insurance and pay your premiums. While you do this, you also remain covered against most medical emergencies while you travel.

However, rules are less stringent for supplemental health plans which can, in some cases, be put on hold, depending on the insurance provider, according to Switzerland’s Moneyland consumer website.

The only exception allowed for suspending the health insurance coverage is during a military or civil protection service which lasts more than 60 consecutive days.

“During these periods, the risks of illness and accident are covered by military insurance. Your health insurance provider will refund your premiums”, according to FOPH.

Under what circumstances can you cancel your Swiss health insurance?

Swiss law says you can cancel your insurance if you are moving abroad, either permanently for for a period exceeding three months.

If you do so, only claims for treatments given while you still lived in Switzerland will be paid by your insurance; any medical bills for treatment incurred after you officially leave will be denied.

These are the procedures for cancelling your compulsory health insurance if you leave the country under conditions mentioned above

To announce your departure abroad, you must send your insurance carrier a letter including your name, customer number or AVS/AHV number.

You must also include a certificate from your place of residence in Switzerland confirming that you have de-registered from your current address, as well as the date of your departure.

Note, however, that if your new destination is another Swiss community / canton, rather than a foreign country, your insurance can only be cancelled from the following calendar year and only if you present proof of having taken up a new policy with another company.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to register your address in Switzerland

You can find out more information about this process here

If you suspend your health insurance for less than six years, you can reactivate it at a later date with the same company when you return to Switzerland.

READ MORE : What you should know about your Swiss health insurance before you go abroad