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First Zika epidemic 'went unnoticed' in French Polynesia

Nicolas Derné / AFP | A billboard in Marinique reads "You have a guest..." in French and features a picture of a mosquito as part of a campaign to fight the Zika virus.

Some scientists say that French authorities did not do enough to stop the spread of the Zika virus after a significant outbreak of the disease in French Polynesia in 2013-2014.

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Dr. Didier Musso, who co-authored several papers about the dangers of Zika during the 2013-2014 outbreak, says that French authorities did not take findings by doctors in the French overseas territory seriously enough.

“In 2014 and 2013, the outbreak of Zika [in French Polynesia] went unnoticed in mainland France,” Musso told Le Point in February. “We managed on our own to isolate the virus, update the diagnostic tests, treat the patients and deal with the first severe medical complications, which no one expected.”

The current Zika epidemic in Latin America, where more than 1.5 million people have been infected, is thought to have been transmitted by international travelers from French Polynesia, a French overseas territory in the South Pacific made up of 118 islands, including Tahiti and Bora Bora.

Scientists say the virus sequences of the strains in Brazil and the Pacific are nearly identical.

No longer a benign disease

The Zika outbreak in French Polynesia was the most widespread up to that point. It affected up to 28,000 people, and more than 10 percent of the local population reported symptoms. Zika then spread from French Polynesia to New Caledonia (France), the Cook Islands (New Zealand) and Easter Island (Chile).

Musso, along with Sophie Ioos, Henri Pierre Mallet, Van-Mai Cao-Lormeau and other doctors at the Institut Louis Malardé and the Institut de Veille Sanitaire in Tahiti, were some of the first to report that Zika was not a “benign” disease as previously thought. In late 2013 they linked Zika to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis and, in some cases, death.

They were also the first medical team to report a possible case of sexual transmission of the disease in early 2015.

‘Heads in the sand’

Musso says authorities ignored the seriousness of the situation in French Polynesia because it was so far away from mainland France. “When you live at the far end of the world, you get used to coping,” he told Le Point.

Musso also said that when the French High Council on Public Health did finally issue recommendations about Zika in 2015, he was not consulted.

“To be frank, French authorities never ask the opinion of people who have actually experienced these problems,” Musso added.

Others point out that the world health community, and not just the French government, shares the responsibility for ignoring Zika in the Pacific. In 2007, an outbreak of Zika in the Yap Islands, east of the Philippines, affected approximately 50 people. It was the first time Zika was detected outside of Africa.

“I think there was not enough attention given to either the Yap or the French Polynesian epidemics by any of us working in infectious diseases,” said Duane Gubler, who studies infectious diseases for Duke University. “We all had our heads in the sand.”
 

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