All aircraft returning to the UK from countries currently affected by active Zika virus transmission will be sprayed with insecticide as part of a comprehensive government response to the disease.
On Monday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the issue of microcephaly - which may be linked to Zika - a public health emergency of international concern.
As a precautionary measure, the government is asking airlines to ensure that disinsection (spraying with insecticide) takes place on all flights to the UK from countries with confirmed transmission of Zika.
Disinsection involves spraying a simple insecticide inside the aircraft to reduce the risk of passengers being bitten by any mosquitoes that could have entered the aircraft. It already occurs on the majority of flights from the region as a precaution against malaria.
The move is consistent with advice from WHO Europe. The type of mosquito that transmits the virus is extremely unlikely to survive and breed here given the lower temperatures in the UK.
Public Health Minister Jane Ellison said:
Spraying insecticide is a highly precautionary measure to reduce the risk to passengers during flights to the UK.
I want to reassure people that the risk to the UK population is extremely low. We advise people travelling to affected areas to reduce the risk of themselves being bitten by wearing mosquito repellent, long sleeves and trousers. Pregnant women should consider avoiding travel to countries with the Zika virus - or if travel is unavoidable, they ought to seek travel health advice from their GP or a travel clinic well in advance of their trip.
More funding for research
The government has also announced a further £1 million funding for research to tackle the Zika virus.
The money from the Global Challenges Research Fund will provide grants for researchers investigating the nature of the virus, including how it is passed on and the potential links to conditions including microcephaly, where an unborn baby’s brain and head stop developing in the womb. The funding will be made available through the Medical Research Council.
This is in addition to the government’s £1 billion Ross Fund, which includes over £188 million for the development of vaccines and diagnostic tests for diseases caused by viruses such as Zika.
Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally C Davies said:
We need to build the scientific evidence around the Zika virus, especially on the potential link to microcephaly. We are determined to support international efforts to understand how to diagnose the disease and control its spread. The UK is a world leader in medical research and I look forward to the progress this funding will undoubtedly bring.
The risk to the UK from Zika virus is extremely low.
Further funding for research into Zika virus has been provided through the UK’s Newton Fund to a joint research project between the University of Glasgow and Fiocruz, a leading biomedical centre in Brazil. The UK Vaccine Network will shortly launch a funding call to support the development of vaccines for some of the world’s deadliest diseases, including Zika.
Advice for the public and healthcare professionals
The Chief Medical Officer has convened a Scientific Advisory Group to consider what action can be taken to ensure the UK is as protected as possible.
Public Health England (PHE) is providing advice for the public on Zika, and has also updated guidance for healthcare professionals with support from the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the Royal College of General Practitioners. PHE has also issued guidance around sexual transmission.
Frequently asked questions and advice on the Zika virus can be found on NHS Choices
Professor Paul Cosford, Medical Director of Public Health England said:
We are determined to do everything we can to protect people from any adverse effect of Zika on pregnancy. The most important advice is for people to take scrupulous measures to reduce the risk of insect bites both during daytime and night time hours.
There have been a very small number of cases where sexual transmission may have occurred, but the risk is thought to be very low.
Men who have travelled to a country where Zika is present and have a female partner who is at risk of getting pregnant, or is already pregnant, are advised to use condoms for 28 days after their return. Those who experience Zika symptoms or have a Zika virus infection confirmed by a doctor should use condoms for 6 months following recovery.
As a precaution, NHS Blood and Transplant has introduced a 28-day blood donation deferral for people looking to donate blood in England and North Wales who have travelled to countries where the Zika virus is endemic.
Travel to most of these countries already means a blood donation deferral of at least 28 days. It is therefore not expected that the introduction of a Zika donation deferral will have a significant impact upon the number of people who can donate following travel abroad.
Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe has advised health authorities to collaborate with the transport sector to ensure disinsection of aircraft arriving from affected areas.
Public Health England (PHE) continues to monitor the international situation closely. PHE has advised pregnant women to consider avoiding travel to countries with ongoing transmission of Zika virus, or if travel is unavoidable to seek travel health advice from their GP or a travel clinic well in advance of their trip.
PHE is also providing updated guidance to healthcare professionals on the management of patients returning from affected countries who present with symptoms.
The Medical Research Council’s (MRC) ‘Rapid Responses’ aim to accelerate the speed at which essential funding can be allocated in emergency situations. The MRC will consider a situation as an emergency if it is unforeseen and presents a serious and immediate risk to human health. Under these exceptional circumstances, applications for funding are directly assessed by a scientific panel and are not subject to usual peer review. All proposals must be clear in why the funding is needed now and cannot wait until the next round of core funding. The size and number of grants awarded will depend on the type and quality of applications received.
Possible avenues of research to be funded by this initiative could include:
epidemiological characteristics, e.g. vector transmission potential, geographical spread, interactions with other arboviruses, changing viral genotype, host susceptibility, incubation period, etc.
development of more specific rapid diagnostic tests for Zika virus that can reduce misdiagnosis that may occur due to the presence of dengue or other viruses in a test sample
viral pathogenicity, association with and potential mechanistic links to neurodevelopment/microcephaly
mechanisms of infection and host immune responses and potential therapeutics/vaccines.
For blood donation, a 28-day deferral for travel to areas with a tropical virus risk and a 6-month deferral for travel to malarial areas exists. The safety of the blood supply is paramount and it is important we implement any precautionary blood safety measures agreed here as a result of an increasing prevalence of infectious diseases found around the globe.
For more information about the MRC’s Rapid Response to Zika or the Newton Fund supported work at the MRC Centre for Virus Research, please contact the MRC press office on +44 (0) 20 7395 2345 or (out of hours) 07818 428 297 Alternatively, please email firstname.lastname@example.org Read more information about the initiative and how to apply