The current Zika virus outbreak in the Americas is unprecedented in terms of the number of cases, and on 1 February, the World Health Organization declared it a public health emergency of international concern.
Zika virus is primarily transmitted by the bite of the Aedes aegypti, the same mosquito that transmits dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.
The National Societies and the IFRC in the region are responding to the crisis by addressing both the vector (the mosquito that transmits the virus) and the social impact of the outbreak.
The World Health Organization has issued an interim guidance for health-care providers: “Psychosocial Support for pregnant women and for families with microcephaly and other neurological complications in the context of Zika virus”.
This document describes guidance for a supportive response by healthcare providers (e.g. physicians, nurses), focusing primarily on women affected by Zika virus infection during pregnancy and their families, for their mental health and psychosocial needs. Healthcare workers need to collaborate with colleagues in other sectors (e.g. social work, education) for a coordinated mental health and psychosocial response.
This guidance for healthcare providers suggests strategies that can be helpful when consulting with the following groups of women and their families:
- Pregnant women with suspected or confirmed Zika virus infection
- Pregnant women who know they carry a child with suspected microcephaly
- Caregivers and families of an infant with microcephaly
Psychosocial support is a high priority
Zika virus is usually a mild disease causing light fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis (red eyes), muscle or joint pain, and general malaise that begins 2-7 days after the bite of an infected mosquito. Only one out of five infected people develop symptoms of the disease.
However, there is strong suspicion that Zika virus is linked to congenital microcephaly. It is a rare condition where a baby has unusually a small head. Babies and children with microcephaly often have challenges with their brain development as they grow older.
Information about causes and effects of the Zika virus is still imperfect and research on consequences of Zika virus infection during pregnancy is intensive. Nevertheless, being pregnant in a Zika affected country is likely to cause high-levels of stress. It is important to inform, communicate and engage pregnant women regularly, identify psychosocial support needs and provide well-planned psychosocial support using best practices and evidence-based methods.
Giving birth to a child with a malformation – regardless of whether the malformation is caused by Zika virus or not – is a stressful event for a family. Babies with microcephaly can also have other deformities and developmental disorders which may increase the risk of stigma and care needs. Well planned and targeted psychological first aid should be supported.
At present, there are no guidelines specifically about psychosocial support in relation to the Zika virus available. Below, the PS Centre has compiled a list of resources that may be useful in the response:
The Community-based psychosocial support training kit provides resources for trainers and participants in key aspects of psychosocial support, including understanding the impact of crisis events, supportive communication, protection issues and self-care.
Different. Just Like you: A psychosocial approach promoting the inclusion of persons with disabilities is aimed at professionals and volunteers who work with persons with disabilities. The concept of empowerment is central to the whole approach presented in this handbook.
Lay counselling – psychosocial support provided by staff or volunteers who do not have a mental health background or formal degree in counselling – is often used to assist people in need. Although lay counselling should never replace professional counselling, thousands of lay counsellors provide an important service to vulnerable people and to their organisations – and sometimes in areas and situations where no professional counselling is available. Therefore, it is important that lay counsellors are well prepared, well trained and effective.
To learn more about the Zika Virus, there are excellent resources available online, which are being updated as new information becomes available.
The Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Network has created a group for the response: “Zika – Microcephaly Emergency Response 2016”. Here it is possible to connect with other responders and find and share relevant materials.
IFRC Zika page on Fednet with technical guidance packages on each area of focus for the response, infographics and other recourses (log-in to Fednet required, can be requested by all Red Cross Red Crescent staff and volunteers): https://fednet.ifrc.org/en/resources/health/health-communications/
Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) special site about Zika Virus (information available in multiple languages):