Singapore beefing up measures against Zika

KENNETH CHENG Today Online 4 Feb 16;

SINGAPORE — The authorities today (Feb 3) announced more measures to beef up the Republic’s preparation against the Zika virus, in the wake of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring clusters of birth defects with suspected links to the virus an international public health emergency earlier this week.

The testing of suspected cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus will be expanded to public hospital laboratories. Currently, blood samples of suspected cases are only tested at the National Public Health Laboratory.

The Ministry of Health will also form a Clinical Advisory Group that will provide expert advice on the management of pregnant women who contract the virus, given the strong suspected causal link between the contraction of the Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly.

Sharing these steps in a joint press release today, the MOH and the National Environment Agency (NEA) said the enhanced measures are in line with recommendations by the WHO.

They noted that the WHO’s Emergency Committee has found “no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus”. Precautionary measures recommended by the WHO include improving Zika infection surveillance, prioritising the development of new diagnostic tests, and stepping up vector control and appropriate personal protective measures. It also recommended that pregnant women who have been exposed to the Zika virus be counselled and followed for birth outcomes.

The MOH and NEA said today that the NEA has ramped up vector-control efforts, to keep the mosquito population low. Scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and Tan Tock Seng Hospital are also reported to be working on equipping an existing diagnostic test kit with the capability to detect the Zika virus.

The measures announced today follow an announcement last week on steps the authorities are taking to enhance the detection and control of potential infections. These include the addition of the Zika virus to the List of Notifiable Infectious Diseases under the Infectious Diseases Act on Jan 26. The MOH had also issued a circular to doctors on Jan 27 to heighten awareness of the virus, so that doctors “stay vigilant against possible suspect cases and are familiar with the protocols for testing and dealing with confirmed cases”.

All patients confirmed to have contracted Zika will be admitted to a public hospital until they recover and test negative for the virus. The ministry will also screen those in close proximity to the patient — such as colleagues and those in the household — for the virus.

Health advisories have also been put out to notify travellers heading to and coming from Zika-affected countries on how to protect themselves against mosquito bites.

Travellers who have returned to Singapore from affected countries have also been reminded to monitor their health and see a doctor should they experience symptoms of Zika, which include fever, rashes and headache.

The authorities had also advised pregnant women to reconsider any travel plans to countries with ongoing outbreaks and local transmission.