Elmo and White House Spreading Concern About Zika

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The World Health Organization (WHO), Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infectious disease experts and public health officials throughout the Americas are united in an unprecedented worldwide effort to stop the Zika virus epidemic, which has no treatment or vaccine. In the latest efforts toward educating the public and spreading concern about Zika, two different public arenas attracted attention on Friday, the White House and Elmo along with other Sesame Street pals.

The White House held a summit of state, local and national officials at the CDC to discuss how to prevent and control the disease, which is largely spread by mosquitos, as the warmer months approach in North America. Zika has been a known illness for more than 60 years. However, the epidemic that devastated Brazil this past year and led to more than 4,000 babies being born with birth defects has forced the world to take another look at previous smaller outbreaks and their outcomes. The virus is now widely linked with the birth defect microcephaly, which causes babies to develop abnormally small brains and heads, as well as increases in cases of the rare autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barre.

Sesame Street’s characters are now being used in two public service announcements in Portuguese, Spanish and soon English. The spots featuring Elmo and his friend Raya are being posted on social media and will be aired on Vila Sésamo in Brazil and Plaza Sésamo elsewhere on Spanish-language stations to educate children and their families, which presumably would include pregnant moms bearing siblings for the toddlers watching, about the disease and how to avoid mosquitoes. As Elmo says, “If the mosquito doesn’t bite, goodbye Zika!”

This is not the first time Sesame Street addressed a public health issue. Last spring, Elmo and the U.S. Surgeon General promoted getting vaccinations. Additionally, a character named Julia was established to spread awareness about autism.

WHO spokesman Daniel Epstein said public health officials knew it is especially important to reach children. “Children often help educate their parents, especially in areas of poverty,” he said. A Los Angeles Times article this week illustrated the need, interviewing numerous women from Zika-prone areas who are unaware of or misinformed about the virus.

Since last spring, an estimated 1.3 million people in Brazil have become ill with Zika. It is now present in 33 countries. It takes a while for the effects to be obvious; a women who is sick in her first trimester would not know the impact of her fetus until birth (not all babies of ill pregnant women have defects). The virus was first reported in Colombia, for example, last October and 32 babies have since been born with microcephaly that is linked to Zika.

So far, more than 300 people in the U.S. states have been diagnosed with Zika, but most had traveled elsewhere in Latin America, and more than 350 have become ill in Puerto Rico.

“If we wait until we see widespread transmission in the United States, if we wait until the public is panicking because they’re seeing babies born with birth defects, we will have waited too late,” commented Amy Pope, who is a deputy U.S. homeland security adviser and serves as a deputy assistant to President Barack Obama. Citing the devastating impact the virus has had on pregnant women in South America, Pope added that protecting expectant women “has to be our number one priority.”

While there are several potential dangerous mosquito-borne viruses, Zika is the only one known to cause birth defects, pointed out CDC director Thomas Frieden. “This is an unprecedented situation,” Frieden said. He also noted that it has been half a century since scientists have identified a virus that is a threat because of its harm to fetuses. The CDC, WHO and other organizations are aggressively spreading concern about Zika, with the White House summit and Elmo spots just two of the ways.

Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

CNN: Elmo joins campaign against Zika virus
Fox News: ‘Sesame Street’ characters Elmo, Raya join fight against Zika in Latin America
Los Angeles Times: For pregnant Central American migrants, Zika doesn’t rank high on list of concerns
USA Today: White House convenes summit on Zika virus