SOUTHCOM Chief Vows to Help U.S. Partner Nations Fight Zika Epidemic

SOUTHCOM Chief Vows to Help U.S. Partner Nations Fight Zika Epidemic

By Geraldine Cook
March 24, 2016

Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. SOUTHCOM, explained how his command will use every tool in its arsenal to fight Zika as the mosquito-borne virus spreads throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

The U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) will use every tool in its arsenal to fight Zika as the mosquito-borne virus spreads throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, SOUTHCOM’s commander, made that pledge on March 22nd while addressing a conference organized by the Washington-based Council of the Americas.

“Many of you are probably wondering why a Naval officer from the U.S. Military is standing up here, instead of a physician or an entomologist,” Adm. Tidd told the audience. “I’ll be the first to admit: I don’t know as much as most people in this room about disease vectors or mosquito eradication programs. But I do know a thing or two about risk interconnections: almost every day I deal with how the security of our nation ties directly to the security of our neighbors to the south, how what happens on the streets of San Salvador and Tegucigalpa ripples inexorably across the streets of Tucson and Chicago.”

“Our Department of Defense, including U.S. SOUTHCOM, along with Health and Human Services, [the] U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and others, are part of a whole-of-government — indeed a whole — of-hemisphere — effort to confront and contain this threat,” he said.

Joining Adm. Tidd on the panel were Román Macaya, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States; Ana Ayala, chief of the Global Health Law Program at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute; Kelly Saldana, deputy director of the Office of Health, Infectious Diseases, and Nutrition at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); and Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

The Zika virus is carried by Aedes aegypti
mosquito. Physicians and public health officials believe the virus causes microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with small heads and underdeveloped brains. This occurs in about one of every 100 pregnant women who test positive for the virus which has been detected in 31 countries and territories throughout the hemisphere. Medical officials believe the virus may also play a role in triggering Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an uncommon sickness of the nervous system that can lead to a fatal form of paralysis.

Colombia has nearly 50,000 suspected cases and Brazil has 70,000, Farnsworth said, estimating the total economic impact of zika at $3.5 billion. “This was the last thing any country wants or needs, and there are political implications if the situation is not handled correctly,” Farnsworth stated.

SOUTHCOM’s response

SOUTHCOM is working very closely with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and various agencies such as USAID, the U.S. State Department and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Teams of health professionals from a cross-section of the U.S. government, including the Defense Department, have come together with PAHO to help conduct needs assessments for regional ministries of health that seek to mitigate the effects of the mosquito that carries the virus,” Adm. Tidd explained. “We are also sharing our force health protection guidance with our partner ministries of defense, as they update their own policies and procedures to protect their people against this virus.”

Adm. Tidd gave some examples of what SOUTHCOM’s bio-surveillance program has done so far:

National Guard units from South Carolina, South Dakota, and Florida are supporting informational exchanges in Suriname and Guyana to train first responders on methods to prevent and contain vector-borne illnesses;

Joint Task Force-Bravo, headquartered at the Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, is using recurring medical readiness training exercises to emphasize vector control and personal protection throughout Central America;

Naval Medical Research Unit No. 6, hosted by the Peruvian Navy in Lima, has helped develop best practices in preventing the spread of diseases like malaria, diarrhea, dengue fever, influenza, and chikungunya — and is now on the front lines with SOUTHCOM’s partner nations in the fight against zika.

“All of these engagements are part of SOUTHCOM’s broader effort to build disease surveillance and response capabilities in support of the Global Health Security Agenda,” Adm. Tidd stated, referring to an interagency program led by the CDC. “Coming together to prevent, detect, and fight every kind of biological danger and working with our partners to improve access to health systems are inherent parts of the U.S. government’s effort to promote a peaceful, prosperous, secure, and resilient Western Hemisphere.”

The CDC sent a team to Brazil to investigate connections between the Zika virus and birth defects. “Our government is working aggressively to combat the Zika virus and has requested more than $1.9 billion in emergency funding to enhance our ongoing efforts to prepare for and respond to it,” Adm. Tidd said. “If approved, these additional resources will help build on the U.S. government’s preparedness efforts and will support essential strategies to combat this virus.”

The funds will be used to bolster plans to implement mosquito control programs, quicken vaccine research and diagnostic development, provide for the testing and development of vaccines, and educating health care providers, pregnant women, and their partners on the dangers of the virus. The money will also strengthen health care capacity, especially to low-income families.

“We stand ready to lend our unique capabilities to support the broader Zika response and preparedness campaign,” Adm. Tidd said. “Our efforts are part of a coordinated whole-of-government approach to halt the spread of the Zika virus regionally and globally.”

SOUTHCOM’s efforts praised

Macaya praised SOUTHCOM’s efforts toward that goal, saying Costa Rica — with only a dozen or so confirmed cases of zika — “has implemented aggressive actions to control mosquito populations, and we’re in our third week with zero new cases.” Yet that’s not totally a reflection of his country’s efforts; part of it is sheer luck, he noted.

“We’re in a very severe drought that dries up breeding sites,” Macaya added. “It’s also a windy time of the year, and not the best conditions for the Aedes aegypti
mosquito. All this will change in May, and we have to be prepared.”

Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans live in Costa Rica, and that many now visiting the neighboring country will return once Easter break is over, Macayo noted with concern. “When they come back, will they be carrying the Zika virus?” he asked. “We also have people from El Salvador requesting refugee status in Costa Rica. Likewise, we have migrants coming from the south, so this issue of immigration and infectious diseases is intertwined.”

Because there is no treatment or vaccine for the virus, most efforts to combat the problem have focused on stopping the spread of mosquitoes. In mid-February, Macaya accompanied a four-member team from George Mason University’s Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases to Costa Rica, where they conducted research on vector-borne diseases in collaboration with local scientists.

“It’s not going to go away,” he stated. “We have to deal with it. The idea is to buy time and minimize the consequences until we hopefully have a universally accessible vaccine.”