Sierra Leone’s last known Ebola case was released from the hospital this week, but authorities have yet to locate about 40 contacts who may be carrying the virus.
While Ebola is still the country’s biggest concern, Ufuoma Festus Omo-Obi, country director of the Marie Stopes family planning organization, said Sierra Leone should be ready for Zika, too.
Zika itself is not life-threatening, but the latest outbreak originating in Brazil shows it might lead to microcephaly, a birth defect that leaves babies with smaller than normal heads.
Omo-Obi said the Stopes organization is now talking to pregnant women about the threat posed by Zika.
“What we have is a briefing,” he said, “to say this is what the Zika virus is, this is what is known about it, this is where it is, etc.”
He added that making abortion legal in Sierra Leone is more crucial now due to the threat of birth defects. A bill to legalize abortion was recently passed by parliament but has not been signed by President Ernest Bai Koroma, as religious leaders have raised concerns about it.
“Let them have access to safe abortions because as we know any woman will terminate a pregnancy if she feels that pregnancy will have health risks and long-term disability [for an unborn child],” Omo-Obi said.
World Health Organization spokesperson Ebba Kalondo said WHO is talking with local officials about ways to increase awareness of Zika and provide support.
Because Africa has the highest prevalence of malaria in the world, she said, people are familiar with mosquito-borne diseases.
“Therefore, people know how to protect themselves against malaria,” Kalondo said. “They know how to clean areas around them, because there’s cholera, there’s malaria — which is endemic already on much of our continent — so much of that knowledge and that action people are already taking is part of the protection, should Zika become a threat.”
News reports say at least 100 pregnant women have contracted the Zika virus on Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa, but so far there are no reports of Zika on the mainland.