World Health Day: Simple steps to prevent vector-borne diseases

Held annually on April 7, World Health Day marks the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organisation and each year highlights an aspect of public health. This year’s theme is vector-borne illnesses and the bugs that transmit them.

Vectors are organisms which transmit pathogens from one infected person (or animal) to another – vector-borne diseases are caused by these pathogens. This type of infection is commonly found in tropical areas and places where access to clean drinking water and clean sanitation is limited.

The most deadly vector-borne disease is malaria, spread via mosquito bites and endemic in many parts of the world. In 2010 it killed an estimated 660,000 people, with the majority of deaths being children in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the fast-spreading vector disease is dengue fever, which has seen a 30-fold increase in cases over the last 50 years.

Dengue fever is a viral disease, and as such there is no definitive drug to treat it. However, with early detection and treatment, complications can be avoided. Dengue has been found in 100 countries, putting 2.5 billion people at risk worldwide, that’s 40 percent of the global population. Recent cases have been reported in China, Portugal, and the state of Florida in the USA, says WHO.

Globalization of trade and travel, and environmental challenges such as climate change and urbanization are having an impact on transmission of vector-borne diseases, and causing their appearance in countries where they were previously unknown.

It isn’t only mosquitoes spreading disease though, World Health Day 2014 also spotlights other common vectors such as sand flies which spread leishmaniasis, and ticks which pass several illnesses on to humans including Lyme disease and tick-borne meningoencephalitis.

The aim of World Health day 2014 is to raise awareness of vector-borne disease and encourage families and communities to take precautions and to protect themselves. Dr. Jacob Kumaresan, Executive Director of WHO’s New York Office, offers some simple steps to do just this:

  • get vaccinated
  • use insect repellant
  • sleep under an insecticide-treated bed net
  • wear light coloured, long sleeved shirts and trousers
  • install window screens
  • remove standing or stagnant water sources where mosquitoes breed

Dr. Lorenzo Savioli, Director of WHO’s Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases said, “Increased funds and political commitment are needed to sustain existing vector-control tools, as well as medicines and diagnostic tools – and to conduct urgently needed research.”