As Zika spreads, El Salvador taps public health campaign launched with Oxfam’s help

By Oxfam
A poster distributed by El Salvador's Ministry of Health to promote steps families can take to prevent mosquito-borne diseases like the Zika virus.

El Niño weather patterns combined with community water use may be encouraging virus-carrying mosquitoes to breed.

As Salvadorans struggle to meet their food needs in the face of an El Niño-triggered drought that wiped out 60 percent of their country’s corn harvest, a new wave of trouble is now washing over the region: the Zika virus.

Transmitted by mosquitoes and potentially linked to serious birth defects, the virus has been declared a global public health emergency by the World Health Organization, and El Salvador has wasted no time in pushing out preventive measures to its citizens.

Through a campaign launched with funding and design help from Oxfam, El Salvador’s Ministry of Health is now actively promoting the many steps families can take to keep their water, homes, and communities clean and mosquito-free. Called “It’s in your hands,” the public health campaign was originally created to tackle outbreaks of Chikungunya and Dengue, both also carried by mosquitoes.

The design of the campaign, featured prominently on the front page of the ministry of health’s website, makes it well-suited for combatting Zika, too. Early in the campaign, water and sanitation experts from Oxfam and its partners trained ministry of health staffers and others to make home visits.

“When the Zika emergency emerged, we already had designed materials validated by all stakeholders,” said Oxfam’s Mercedes Garcia, and because of that the organization has been able to continue supporting the ministry of health during this outbreak. “Now, international cooperation needs to focus more on generating strategies and financial support for preparedness efforts at the local level and for stakeholders so they can be at the center of quality humanitarian response.”

While continuing to support the government in its coordination efforts, Oxfam will keep working on health promotion activities in coastal areas and the dry corridor. In addition, Oxfam will continue to push for a policy change that will ensure everyone’s right to have clean water, thereby improving public health.

People in Berlin, Usulutan, who were affected by the El Niño drought made artisan wells to collect rain water for their household use. However, the wells can also attract mosquitoes, which could carry both Zika and Dengue. Photo: Tania Moreno / Oxfam

Rapid transmission in the Americas

Fast-spreading and now in 26 countries and territories in the Americas, the Zika virus is suspected of having infected more than 3,300 Salvadorans, nearly 100 of whom are pregnant, according to the ministry of health. And though the link is not proven yet, concern is growing about the connection between Zika and microcephaly, a birth defect that leaves newborns with small heads and can sometimes result in life-threatening symptoms. Some governments are now urging women not to get pregnant, even as up to 60 percent of pregnancies in Latin America are unplanned.

Scientists have not yet developed a vaccine for the virus. Its rapid transmission in the Americas is due to two factors, says the Pan American Health Organization: since Zika is new to this part of the world, people have not yet developed defenses against it; and the Aedes mosquito that carries it also happens to be widespread in the region—thriving in the warmth and humidity of many countries.

Causing extra concern for Salvadorans and millions of others in Central America is the role that current drought may be playing in this outbreak. Jonathan Patz, the director of the global health institute at the University of Wisconsin told the Associated Press that the mosquito that carries Zika does well in droughts in places where people store their water in outdoor containers. Standing water is a favorite mosquito breeding ground.

The “It’s in your hands” campaign promotes a number of tools that include fumigation and household inspections to help families understand where the bugs might be breeding and steps they can take to stop their reproduction. The outreach is also targeting schools and municipal offices to help educate the public.

As worries about Zika grow, the effects of the drought continue to linger. The World Health Organization says that 4.2 million people in Central America are feeling the consequences of the extreme weather, and the poorest households may face severe food insecurity until the next harvest in August.

The El Nino weather system—a natural climate phenomenon that occurs periodically—is associated with the drought. The current El Nino is among the strongest ever recorded. And though meteorologists expect it to be over by about March, the impact it has had on people’s lives will last much longer.

Oxfam, with its partners, is on the ground in El Salvador helping families to combat the spread of the disease. You can bring hope to these people – and all people facing hunger, poverty, and injustice in more than 90 countries around the world with a gift to Oxfam today.

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