On heels of Zika, yellow fever may be the new health threat

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The long-dormant disease is coming to life in Africa

U.S. health officials are still ramping up their efforts to combat an expected Zika virus outbreak this summer, but maybe there's another potential threat that should be on their radar screens as well.

Two Georgetown University professors say the outbreak of yellow fever around the world, which so far has spread without much notice, is becoming the world's newest health emergency.

Daniel Lucey and Lawrence O. Gostin, of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown, say the World Health Organization (WHO) needs to act quickly. In fact, the doctor and lawyer team argue that the WHO needs a standing committee to deal with emerging health emergencies.

Destructive history

You'll be forgiven if you aren't that familiar with yellow fever. But people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries certainly were. Like Zika, yellow fever is spread by infected mosquitoes.

Thought to have originated in Africa, yellow fever, an influenza-like desease, was common in tropical areas for years. In the U.S., the city of New Orleans was devastated by yellow fever epidemics in the 19th century. It famously killed many workers constructing the Panama Canal in the early 20th century.

After a vaccine was developed in the 1930s, yellow fever was mostly eliminated throughout the world. Now, however, it's back.

Angola hard hit

In a JAMA article published this week, Lucey and Gostin say the latest outbreak first surfaced in early January and is spreading quickly in Angola. They say as of April, Angola had documented over 2,000 cases that had caused 258 deaths.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) brought attention to the epidemic by issuing an alert in Latin America, which is still battling the Aedes aegypti mosquito vector, still busy transmitting Zika and dengue viruses.

The professors say vaccines remain in short supply, which could aggravate the crisis. Vaccine demands are escalating everywhere in Africa. In Kenya, there are plans to vaccinate two million people.

“The complexities and apparent increased frequency of emerging infectious disease threats, and the catastrophic consequences of delays in the international response, make it no longer tenable to place sole responsibility and authority with the Director-General to convene currently ad hoc emergency committees,” Lucey and Gostin write.

According to the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), yellow fever is “a very rare cause of illness” in U.S. travelers. The CDC notes there is no specific treatment for yellow fever. For those at risk, it urges the use of insect repellent, wearing protective clothing, and getting vaccinated.

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