By Blanca Lomeli

Zika is causing worldwide concern because of its connection to dreadful birth defects. Now as infections continue to rise in Latin and Central America, the countries in the Americas are bracing for more than warm weather this spring and summer.

In February, the World Health Organization declared Zika a “public health emergency of international concern,” and called for the empowering of communities to reduce risk, vulnerabilities and exposure, with community engagement and mobilization.

During times of emergency, when individuals, families and communities face a new epidemic, being able to identify who is most at risk, and understanding how it happens and how to prevent it, is crucially important for those we are most vulnerable.

Since the earliest days of the epidemic, PCI has been on the ground in Central America ramping up preparedness and emergency response activities to slow or stop the spread of the disease through communication and engagement and mobilization strategies. Preventing the spread is possible through meaningful involvement with those affected and at-risk.

Building on the trust that already exists between PCI staff and the communities we serve in Guatemala and Nicaragua, we are contributing to the prevention and control of this epidemic and helping to strengthen the local capacities of women, families and communities, to respond to this public health threat and to others in the future.

In Guatemala, PCI’s response has included public awareness, collaboration and coordination with the Ministry of Health and municipalities in several of the communities we currently implement health and development projects.

PCI is working with 465 local women organized into 25 Women Empowered groups in San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán and Malacatancito, in the Huehuetenango department to raise awareness and empower action and to prevent the spread of Zika.

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Maria Ordoñez, Margariga Jiménez and Dominga Ortiz, members of WE group “Integrated Development” discuss Zika prevention and action. Photo by Sonia Perez, WE group facilitator, PCI Guatemala

Currently, educational and awareness sessions in WE meetings are taking place to teach members how to take action and disseminate information. They also help PCI staff understand women’s concerns and the barriers they might face in prevention.

Women are learning about Zika transmission and prevention, and the importance of vector control, and what they can do in their households to contribute to their own and their community’s health. As part of the work they do, WE groups identify issues of social concern that they want to further explore in their communities, as well as commitments to action.

A few of the groups have chosen Zika as a social topic that merits further awareness and action. Women are learning about the importance of prevention, and protection of pregnant women, and how cleaner households and communities help prevent mosquito bites.

While most people who are infected report symptoms of mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, the possibility for pregnant women to be infected and have their babies suffering from a serious and sometimes deadly birth defect called microcephaly is the biggest concern. Adults and children also can suffer from Guillain Barré syndrome, a rare condition in which a person’s immune system attacks their peripheral nerve resulting in temporary paralysis.

The right communication, engagement and mobilization strategies are based on facts but also seek to understand communities’ perceptions and fears that can affect the decision to act upon knowledge they just learned. Public Health Risk Communication (PHRC) is a strategy that combines these communication functions. It proactively seeks to identify myths and misinformation that affect prevention and access to care, which can also result in stigma and discrimination of those affected.

In a public health emergency, the solutions to the problems rely heavily on the public’s capacity to understand, make sense of the information they are hearing and behave accordingly. Without the communities’ participation and engagement, prevention is very difficult, and access to care gets complicated or delayed.

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Amarilis Herrera, member of the WE group “Virtuous Women,” facilitating a conversation on Zika, in the Municipality of Malacatancito, Guatemala. Photo by Floridalma Lopez, WE group facilitator, PCI Guatemala

PCI is helping to improve prevention and protection, fostering community engagement and placing an emphasis on building local ownership for a sustained impact.

Blanca is PCI’s Senior Technical Advisor for Local Capacity Strengthening