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Doctors scramble to control Zika outbreak in India’s most populous state



Doctors in India’s most populous state are scrambling to control an outbreak of a mosquito-borne disease that has been linked to birth defects

More than 120 people have tested positive for Zika in the last three weeks in the city of Kanpur – this is the first time the virus has been detected in the state. However, the actual number of infections is likely to be much higher as in most cases the virus only causes a mild fever and is often mistaken for flu. But, in 10 per cent of cases it can be fatal, causing muscle paralysis and weakness. 

Although the first cases of Zika were reported in Uganda in the 1950s it was not until a large outbreak in Brazil in 2015-16 that the link to birth defects was made. Nearly 4,000 babies were born with microcephaly, a condition that leads to a significantly smaller head and impaired brain development.

Around a third of babies born to women who had contracted Zika in Brazil developed some level of developmental delay, according to a University of California study.

At least six pregnant women have tested positive for Zika in Uttar Pradesh to date. The women are being monitored but health services in India’s poorest state are scarce.

Last week, three cases of the virus were detected in the state capital of Lucknow, home to three million people and 50 miles from Kanpur.

There are also fears that the virus could spread to India’s capital of Delhi, which neighbours Uttar Pradesh. The city is home to 20 million people and has a population density of over 29,000 people per square mile, one of the world’s highest.

Residents of Kanpur are blaming a suspension of mosquito-control measures in the city during the Covid pandemic for the emergence of Zika. Uttar Pradesh has also seen a severe outbreak of dengue, another mosquito-borne disease. 

India has one of the world’s most underfunded public health systems and both money and health workers were diverted to tackle the devastating delta variant outbreak in the spring.

Attempts to clear stagnant water sources in the city, which provide a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, only began with the onset of the disease outbreaks, an official from India’s National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme told the website Scroll.in.

“In Uttar Pradesh, that was delayed,” the official said, on condition of anonymity. “It only started when dengue cases started rising in Firozabad, and now with Zika in Kanpur.”

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