Zika outbreak: Asia on guard as virus spreads across South America

Authorities in Asia including in Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Japan and Vietnam, have taken steps to guard against the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
Jeremy Koh, Channel NewsAsia, Michiyo Ishida, Japan Bureau Chief, Channel NewsAsia, Saifulbahri Ismail, Sumisha Naidu, Malaysia Correspondent, Channel NewsAsia and Roland Lim, Hong Kong Bureau Chief, Channel NewsAsia 2 Feb 16;

SINGAPORE: The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared an international public health emergency over the Zika virus, which has been blamed for causing brain damage in newborns.

The virus has been spreading through Latin America, and territories as far apart as Brazil and French Polynesia have reported a spike in babies born with microcephaly – characterised by abnormally small heads and neurological disorders.

Authorities in Asia have stepped up measures to guard against Zika as well. Zika is spread by the Aedes mosquito – which also transmits dengue fever – and the virus typically causes mild fever and rashes.


Malaysia's Health Minister Dr S Subramaniam told reporters on Tuesday (Feb 2) his ministry would be issuing specific guidelines in a day or two. But in general, Malaysians have been advised advised to stay away from South America.

When asked about a case of Zika reported in neighbouring Indonesia, the minister said he would be in contact with Indonesian authorities but said it would be quite difficult to impose any travel restrictions on people travelling to the country, or vice versa. More than 2 million Indonesians are estimated to work in Malaysia and the two nations have many close ties.


The Indonesian government said it will be studying the Zika virus more closely amid concerns about its possible spread in the country.

Last year, a 27-year-old man in Jambi, Central Sumatra, was found to have been infected by the virus. He recovered without any complications two days after receiving treatment.

The patient had never travelled abroad.

The Indonesian Health Ministry has said it will trace all blood samples taken from patients during the dengue outbreak in Jambi.

Pretty Multihartina, head of the biomedical and technology department at the Health Ministry's research and development agency told The Jakarta Post that it is unclear how the man was infected with the virus when he had no history of travelling abroad.

She said: "There is a possibility that we already had Zika for a long time, but it hasn't caused any deaths, and thus is underestimated."


Chinese authorities have said China is ready to help South America with its fight to contain the Zika virus.

Even though the WHO has warned that China is at risk of being affected by the Zika virus, China's Health Ministry said the country is unlikely to see an epidemic, as the density of mosquitoes is low due to the winter weather.

However, China did not discount the possibility of imported cases. Parts of southern Guangdong province, for instance, have residents working in South America and they are likely to head home for the Lunar New Year holidays starting later this week.

The Chinese Health Ministry said the country is developing prevention and treatment plans that borrow from the experience of other countries. It added that it is training health professionals to identify and treat the virus as well.


Meanwhile, Hong Kong will raise its alert levels from Friday (Feb 5) and make it mandatory for doctors to report any suspected case of the virus to the Centre for Health Protection.

There are currently no such cases in Hong Kong, although health experts have warned it is only a matter of time, as the city sees hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving daily. At present, no travel restrictions are being considered by the government.

The government has urged people who have travelled to the affected areas to continue to use mosquito repellent for two weeks after arrival to prevent them from being bitten.

As the virus is spread through the blood, there will be a blood donation ban on travellers who have visited affected areas.


For now, a Zika outbreak within Japan is not a major concern as the low winter temperatures are not conducive for mosquitoes. However, the government has announced precautions.

Japan's Health, Labour and Welfare Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki said there are plans to require doctors to report patients carrying the Zika virus to authorities, under a new infectious disease law.

The Health Policy Bureau has also required all infectious disease testing facilities in Japan to be on standby, in the event of a worst-case scenario. The government will continue issuing advisories to those travelling to countries where the Zika virus has been reported.

"It is important for those travelling to the epidemic area such as Latin America to pay attention not to be bitten by mosquitoes. We especially urge pregnant women to try to refrain from travelling to the epidemic area,” said the Health Minister.


No cases of Zika virus has been reported in South Korea yet, but authorities have held an emergency meeting and urged citizens to be cautious when overseas, especially in countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Officials have also warned against pregnant women visiting Latin American countries, and said doctors who fail to report patients showing symptoms of infection could face fines of up to 2 million won (US$1,650).


In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City’s international airport has begun temperature screening for arriving passengers, Xinhua news agency reported a local quarantine centre as saying.

The International Quarantine Centre in the city added that Tan Son Nhat international airport is also spraying chemicals to wipe out mosquitoes.

- CNA/xq

Thailand says man contracted Zika virus domestically
The man has now recovered and been discharged from hospital, according to the director of Bangkok's Bhumibol Adulyadej Hospital.
Channel NewsAsia 2 Feb 16;

BANGKOK: A man has contracted the Zika virus in Thailand, officials said Tuesday (Feb 2), as a global alert intensifies over the mosquito-borne infection blamed for a surge in serious birth defects in South America.

Authorities said the 22-year-old Thai man is likely to have caught the same strain of the virus that has caused panic in countries such as Brazil and Colombia. The virus "was confirmed by blood tests", Air Vice Marshall Santi Srisermpoke, director of Bangkok's Bhumibol Adulyadej Hospital, told reporters.

"His symptoms were a fever, a rash and redness of the eyes," he said, adding he had not travelled abroad.

The man has recovered and been discharged from hospital, he added, without giving further details of how long he was in hospital, or where he contracted the sickness.

Amnuay Gajeena, director-general of the Disease Control Department of the Public Health Ministry, said it was "likely to be the same strain as the one found in South America".

"It's not a new disease in Thailand... we had the first confirmed case in 2012. Since then we have an average of not more than five cases yearly," he said. "There is no need to panic... we have never had an epidemic of the Zika virus in Thailand all of the cases were one-offs."

The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads dengue fever, carries the sickness. It breeds in tropical areas, including Thailand, which has seen a surge in cases of dengue in recent months.

The World Health Organization linked a spike in birth defects in South America to the virus.

The UN health body said that a rise in cases of microcephaly - in which babies are born with an abnormally small head - was likely caused by the mosquito-borne virus, and declared the situation a "public health emergency of international concern".

First detected in Africa in 1947, Zika was considered a relatively mild disease until the current outbreak was declared in Latin America last year.

Brazil was the first country to sound the alarm on the apparent link with birth defects. It has since become the worst affected country, with some 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly, of which 270 have been confirmed.

As alarm grows over the surge in the number of cases, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica and Puerto Rico have warned women to delay conceiving until the Zika outbreak is brought under control.

- AFP/yt

Australia reports two cases of Zika virus, detects mosquitoes at Sydney airport
Two Australians were diagnosed with the Zika virus after returning home from travels in the Caribbean, a state health service said on Tuesday, confirming the first cases of the mosquito-borne virus in the country this year.
Channel NewsAsia 2 Feb 16;

SYDNEY: Two Australians were diagnosed with the Zika virus after returning home from travels in the Caribbean, a state health service said on Tuesday, confirming the first cases of the mosquito-borne virus in the country this year.

Officials also said that mosquitos carrying the virus had been detected at Sydney International Airport, but stressed that it was unlikely the virus would establish local transmission given the lack of large numbers of the Aedes Aegypti mosquitos.

Confirmation of the Australian cases came just a day after the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus to be an international public health emergency due to its link to underdeveloped brains in some babies. There is no vaccine against the mosquito-borne virus.

The New South Wales (NSW) health department said the two Sydney residents were diagnosed with the Zika virus on Friday after returning to Australia from Haiti.

Formal diagnosis can take several weeks and the department did not disclose when the couple were tested. It said the pair had mild cases of the virus and had recovered.

"It is very unlikely that Zika virus will establish local transmission in NSW as the mosquitos that spread the infection are not established here - although they are found in some parts of north Queensland," Vicky Sheppeard, director of communicable diseases at NSW Health, said in a statement.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Department of Agriculture said it was imposing additional cabin spraying of insecticides on flights arriving into Sydney from Southeast Asia.

The department said the step-up in procedures, which includes adding extra mosquito vector monitoring traps, followed the "recent detection" of Aedes Aegypti mosquitos at Sydney airport.

"These measures are undertaken to prevent these mosquitoes establishing breeding populations in Australia, thereby preventing the potential for the local spread of these diseases," the department said in a statement.

Queensland state in the north of the country is on high alert for any entry of the disease from Australia's Asian neighbors.

Australia has reported isolated cases of Zika in recent years, including a 27-year-old man who was believed to have contracted the virus in Bali last year after he was bitten by a monkey.

From 2013 through 2015 there were a handful of other cases involving travelers returning from Indonesia, the Cook Islands and Solomon Islands.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell; Editing by Robert Birsel)

- Reuters