The United Nations is warning that the Zika virus could spread quickly throughout Fiji in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Zena, which left pools of stagnant water across the stricken island nation this week.
Sanitation is a “huge issue”, as many Fijians struggle to secure adequate food and shelter after being battered by two tropical cyclones in less than two months.
“There’s a lot of open defection because there’s a severe lack of toilets in many of the affected communities,” said Sune Gudnitz, the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs in the Pacific.
“On top of that we also have all the mosquito borne diseases that come with stagnant water, which usually happens after rains and cyclones and you have Zika for example and Dengue are both cropping up in Fiji,” Gudnitz said.
Tropical Cyclone Zena passed by Fiji as a category three tempest in the early hours of Thursday morning, bringing gale-forced winds and widespread flooding to areas that had already reached saturation point.
Fiji has recently been added to the list of countries affected by the Zika, a mosquito-borne virus which can be transmitted by pregnant women to their unborn babies and lead to Microcephaly, a condition which leads them to be born with shrunken heads.
As at April two, the Fiji Health Ministry had confirmed ten cases of the virus. It has increasingly concerned health officials in recent months, after it swept Latin America and Brazilian authorities reported a dramatic jump in cases of Microcephaly.
“Fiji was just added in the last couple of days to the official list of countries with Zika outbreak so unfortunately, yes, there is a great concern there,” Gudnitz said.
“With this whole cyclone situation it has a great potential to escalate because there’s a lot of stagnant water, and living conditions and breeding conditions for mosquitoes, and that’s when these viruses peak.
“The Ministry of Health is very much in charge of this …[but]one way of mitigating the risk is to spray, another way is to encourage people not to have stagnant water lying around,” he said.
The United Nations official said there is growing concern about a possible outbreak of Dengue Fever – “in many ways equally as bad a virus” – because it affects the whole population, rather than being primarily a threat to pregnant women and their babies.
These concerns are exacerbated by food security issues in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Zena, because many of the crops planted in the effort to recover from category five Tropical Cyclone Winston have been washed away in this week’s heavy rains.
As the latest recovery effort begins, Gudnitz said that the elderly and children are most at-risk, and that the threat of mosquito-borne diseases will be “compounded by lack of access to nutritious food that”.
The Fijian Ministry of Health has not responded to requests for comment about what the government is doing to address the threat posed by the Zika virus and Dengue Fever. According to Gudnitz, “work is going on”, although he was unsure of its exact nature.
Readers can help by donating to the Red Cross’ appeal, which was launched in response to Tropical Cyclone Winston but is needed more than ever now, according to the United Nations.