Responding to requests for urgent assistance, the International Atomic Energy Agency will provide nuclear-derived early detection tools and training support to help Latin American and Caribbean countries rapidly identify cases of the Zika virus, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said today.
The IAEA assistance consists of the transfer of specialized equipment and technical expertise in the near future. The cost of this initiative—totalling 400,000 euros—is covered by reserve funds available for emergencies in the already approved annual IAEA budget. It is part of broader support to strengthen the region’s capacity to act against the Zika outbreak, which will be discussed by the IAEA’s Board of Governors early next month.
Zika virus infection has been reported in 26 countries and territories in the Americas. There are indications of a link between infection during pregnancy and a neurological disorder, microcephaly, in new-borns. The World Health Organization earlier this month declared a public health emergency of international concern due to Zika.
“The Agency tries to respond quickly to emerging crises of this nature,” Mr. Amano said. “Assisting countries with nuclear-related technologies to strengthen their health care capacities is a key part of our development work around the world. We are well prepared to deliver such assistance. In this case, it will enable countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to establish or strengthen early warning systems for the Zika virus.”
Mr. Amano received requests for assistance to address the Zika outbreak and its public health consequences from several countries while visiting Central America recently.
The IAEA’s support involves the transfer of technology for virus detection based on Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR). This proven and efficient nuclear-derived technique was provided by the IAEA also during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.
The emergency assistance includes RT-PCR machines, consumables and technical advice, as well as training on how to use the technology to detect the virus and differentiate it from others such as dengue and chikungunya.
A joint division of the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has been at the forefront in supporting the use of RT-PCR, which can detect a virus within three hours. Early detection enables countries to take immediate action against any outbreak.
In addition to the delivery of virus detection equipment to some countries in the region following their requests, the IAEA will make RT-PCR training available for all 28 Latin American and Caribbean Member States at its FAO/IAEA Agriculture and Biotechnology Laboratories in Seibersdorf outside Vienna. The training will start in late March.
The IAEA has also developed a new Regional Technical Cooperation project in response to requests for the transfer of the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) to complement other efforts aimed at suppressing the Aedes aegypti mosquito population, which transmits viruses such as Zika. The SIT is a form of pest control that uses ionizing radiation to sterilize male insects that are mass-produced in special rearing facilities. It has been successfully used throughout the world for over 50 years for various agricultural insect pests. The 2.28 million euro project will be submitted for approval to the IAEA’s Board of Governors meeting on March 7-11 in Vienna.
As previously announced, the IAEA will organize an international expert meeting in Brasilia, Brazil, on 22-23 February about the role of the SIT in combatting Zika. The outcome will be discussed in a wider coordination meeting in the same city on 24-26 February with officials from Latin American and Caribbean countries.