Best of our wild blogs: 29 Jan 16

Science – Shell trade pushes giant clams to the brink
Neo Mei Lin

Asian Waterbirds Census 2016
Singapore Bird Group

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NEA could appoint volunteers as auxiliary officers

This is one of the proposed changes to the National Environment Agency (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill introduced in Parliament on Thursday.
Faris Mokhtar Channel NewsAsia 29 Jan 16;

SINGAPORE: The National Environment Agency (NEA) could soon appoint volunteers to be auxiliary officers tasked to carry out enforcement actions.

This is one of the proposed changes to the National Environment Agency (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill introduced in Parliament on Thursday (Jan 28).

Individuals appointed to be auxiliary officers need not be from the public service. Auxiliary officers could also be given certain powers, currently held by NEA officers or employees.

Another proposed change is to grant NEA's officers or employees more powers. They could be allowed to photograph or record the scene of any offences under the National Environment Agency Act.

The Bill will be read again at the next Parliament sitting.

- CNA/ms

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Govt does not monitor Temasek, GIC's investments in haze-linked firms: MOF

Mr Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Finance Minister, says that commercial decisions by GIC and Temasek Holdings are made independent of state involvement.
Channel NewsAsia 28 Jan 16;

SINGAPORE: The Government only monitors the performance of haze-linked companies that sovereign wealth fund GIC and investment firm Temasek Holdings have investments in, said finance minister Heng Swee Keat, and not their commercial decisions.

Nonetheless, both are fully supportive of zero-burning policies for land clearance, he said.

"GIC has also the Government that the palm oil companies in Indonesia that GIC invests in have confirmed that they observe zero-burning policies for their plantations. GIC’s investment teams engage actively with the companies’ management and highlight that such responsible actions are important for maintaining the long-term value of the companies," said Mr Heng in a written answer to queries by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leon Perera of the opposition Workers’ Party.

Temasek has stated that it fully supports zero-burning policies for land clearance, and would urge palm oil companies and plantation owners to do the same, the Finance Minister added.

Mr Heng also noted that with GIC and Temasek’s investment activities seeking long-term, sustainable returns, investing in companies with environmentally unsustainable practices could negatively impact the commercial value of the investments over the long term.

“The individual investments of GIC and Temasek are the responsibility of their respective management teams, while the Government monitors the performance of their overall portfolio,” said Mr Heng.

“GIC and Temasek operate on a purely commercial basis in order to maximise long-term risk-adjusted returns, and the individual investment decisions are fully independent of any Government interference or influence.”

“This is an important governance principle that we seek to maintain."

- CNA/jo

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Malaysia: Help with probe on consumption of turtle eggs, leaders urged

The Star 29 Jan 16;

KOTA KINABALU: All those questioned by authorities in connection with the investigation into consumption of turtle eggs have been urged to give their full cooperation, including ministers.

Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment minister Datuk Masidi Manjun said everyone, including ministers and local leaders, were not above the law and should give their cooperation.

This issue caught the public’s attention after photographs of eggs served at a restaurant during a function went viral on social media last November.

Photographs showed Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Beluran Umno chief Datuk James Ratib seated at a table with a plate of turtle eggs, some already consumed, in front of them.

Masidi said coming forward to give a statement was not a sign of guilt.

“Don’t worry, just come forward and assist the Wildlife Department so that they can solve this case as soon as possible,” he said after launching Sabah’s newest radio station – KupiKupiFM – here yesterday.

Masidi was commenting on a recent news report alleging that ministers involved in the case were not cooperating with investigators.

“The authorities just want to get as many witnesses and information as possible so they can zero in on the culprits and solve this case,” he said, adding that there was no reason for anyone to delay giving their statements.

Fourteen in Sabah questioned over turtle egg dish so far
RUBEN SARIO The Star 2 Feb 16;

KOTA KINABALU: Fourteen people have been questioned so far over a dinner attended by a federal minister in Sandakan last year where turtle eggs were served.

State Wildlife Department director William Baya said they wanted to record the statement of Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Ismail Sabri Yaakob, but only after meeting local leaders who were at the dinner last November.

"We have yet to issue any letter or contact the minister to get his statement because of logistical issues since he is in Kuala Lumpur," William said.

State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun said Ismail was not a target of the investigation, but they wanted to record his statement.

The department launched a probe after photographs were posted on social media showing Ismail at an Umno division dinner at a seafood restaurant together with Beluran Umno chief Datuk James Ratib.

A plate of what appeared to be at least two dozen turtle eggs were seen on the table before them.

Turtles are protected under the Sabah Wildlife Enactment 1997.

It is an offence to be in possession of the animals or their products, such as eggs, and those convicted are liable to a fine of RM50,000, five years' imprisonment or both.

The photographs, which went viral on social media, sparked an outcry among conservationists here.

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Malaysia: Wildlife officers save village and elephants

T. AVINESHWARAN The Star 29 Jan 16;

LENGGONG: Folks in Kampung Luat can breathe easier after the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) caught two wild elephants that were lurking in their village for almost a week.

Twenty-five people from the department’s National Elephant Conservation Centre and Elephant Transportation Unit caught the two male Asian elephants on Tuesday.

The elephants were said to be stranded, believed left behind by their herd.

One of them was transferred to the Royal Belum State Park yesterday while the other will be sent there on Saturday. The remaining elephant is now being held in a cage at the village.

State Perhilitan director Rozaidan Md Yasin, who monitored the whole process, said the elephants – both about 15 years old – were from the Piah Forest Reserve.

“There are 12 elephants in the forest reserve. These two were stranded,” he said.

Two trained elephants from the National Elephant Conservation Centre that helped to transfer the wild elephant into the truck were the show stealers.

Abut and Rambai, both female Asian elephants, calmed the wild elephant during the transfer process. They even allowed villagers and reporters to take pictures with them later.

At one point, the wild elephant tried to break loose when one of the workers sprayed something on its leg and it moved its trunk towards the worker. The worker managed to move away in time while one of the trained elephants calmed it down.

Kampung Luat village chief Ahmad Bakri Ariffin, 52, said the people in the village could not go to the rubber and palm oil plantations as they were afraid they would be attacked by the wild elephants.

“Some of the villagers would come across the wild elephants in their farms but the two did not attack them.

“On Jan 18, we reported to Perhilitan and on Jan 19, they came down to monitor the whereabouts of the elephants and they caught them two days ago,” he said.

Speculating on how the wild elephants got stranded, he said: “Piah Forest Reserve is 5km from our village. Some elephants will get lost because they can’t catch up with their group.”

One of the villagers, Mohd Taharin Mat Hashim, 56, recalled how on midnight of Jan 17, he heard some noise at his rubber plantation and knew it was elephants.

“They were behind my house. I told my family not to come out from their house.

“We could not see them at night but the noise was obvious.

“In the morning when we saw elephant faeces in my plantation and behind my house, I immediately alerted our village chief,” he said, adding that parts of his plantation were damaged by their rampaging.

According to World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), the increasing human population in Asia has affected the elephant’s dense but diminishing forest habitat.

Perhilitan said only 1,200 to 1,500 elephants were left in Malaysia and they were considered an endangered species.

Wild elephant relocated
RAHMAT KHAIRULRIJAL New Straits Times 28 Jan 16;

LENGGONG: The state Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) has successfully relocated one of two wild elephants which were captured at Kampung Luak near here last week.

The pachyderm was relocated to an undisclosed location in Royal Belum State Park today.

Perhilitan director Rozidan Mohd Yasin said the department began tracking the elephants last week following complaints by villagers.

“We brought in two female elephants to guide it into a lorry before moving them," he said.

A total of 20 officers, including those from Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, were involved in the three-hour relocation process that began at 10am.

“The duo are believed to be between 15 and 20 years old.

They were part of a 12-member herd, which had been sighted roaming in the nearby Piah Forest Reserve,” he said after the relocation process here.

He said another elephant, which was a bit aggressive, would be relocated on Saturday.

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Malaysia: Jellyfish warning for Sabah

The Star 29 Jan 16;

KOTA KINABALU: Taking a dip in the sea along parts of Sabah’s west coast may not be a good idea now due to the jellyfish season.

Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s Borneo Marine Research Institute (BMRI) lecturer Muham­mad Ali Syed Hussein said jellyfish could be found along the beaches and parts of the coastline in the early part of the year.

“The sea currents bring in colder water and that brings planktons. The planktons in turn attract other larger marine creatures, inclu­ding shrimp and jellyfish,” he said.

He said the turbidity of the colder sea water made it difficult to spot the transparent jellyfish.

“It is best not to go swimming in the sea for now and exercise caution,” he said.

Four children, aged between nine and 12 years, were reported to have been stung by jellyfish in Tanjung Aru between Jan 9 and Jan 17.

BMRI researcher Dr John Madin said 16 jellyfish species could be found in waters off Sabah and the sting of three of the species was venomous.

They are Chiropsalmus quadrigatus, Chirop­salmus quadromunus and Carybdea rastoni which is locally known as balung api.

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Malaysia: Plummeting oil prices poses challenges for Pengerang to get new investors


KUALA LUMPUR: The planners of the multi-billion ringgit oil and gas (O&G) hub in Pengerang, Johor, are finding it difficult to secure investors for its later phases as global players rein in investment plans in light of plummeting oil prices.

“Under the current environment, investors are holding back their investments. It is very tough to find the ‘second’ Petronas (Petroliam Nasional Bhd) to come in to invest more than RM100bil in the Pengerang Integrated Petroleum Complex (PIPC),” said Johor Petroleum Development Corp Bhd (JPDC) chief executive officer Mohd Yazid Ja’afar.

The PIPC plan is to house oil refineries, petrochemical plants, a naphtha cracker, a liquefied natural gas import terminal and a regasification plant over 20,000 acres of land in the southeast of Pengerang in the Kota Tinggi district in Johor.

Speaking at a luncheon talk organised by MIDF Amanah Investment Bank Bhd’s yesterday, Yazid said: “Integrated (O&G) players will be looking at their books and asking themselves if they can ride out the storm. So, we expect to see a slow down of investments coming in”.

It had been reported earlier that due to the slumping price of crude oil, major players such as BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, Norway’s Statoil and Australia’s Woodside Petroleum have collectively shelved some US$200bil of their planned capex .

Yazid said the JPDC was reviewing its masterplan for PIPC, which was finalised back in 2010.

“Every five year we would need to review the masterplan for PIPC and we plan to do that this year, taking into account the current scenario,” he said, adding that the target to make PIPC as a regional O&G storage and trading hub by 2035 could be postponed.

“We will have an updated masterplan for PIPC ready by next year,” he said.

Still, Yazid was quick to add that projects within the PIPC that had already secured investment commitments, were proceeding according to schedule.

“The first phases by Petronas and Dialog Group Bhd are within schedule and these projects are expected to be fully completed by 2019,” he said.

The first big project within the PIPC is a RM5bil Pengerang Independent Deepwater Petroleum Terminal (PIDPT), which is a joint-venture between Dialog, Royal Vopak of the Netherlands and the Johor state government. The total planned storage capacity at PIDPT is for five million cu m by the year 2020.

The second mega-project within PIPC is Petronas’ Pengerang Integrated Complex (PIC) plan which carries a committed investment of RM89bil. This includes the RM60bil Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development or Rapid project.

Yazid added that on a positive note, the PIPC was focused on the downstream sector of the O&G industry, which tended to benefit from lower oil prices, especially oil refineries.

Yazid said the phase one of PIPC takes up 38% of land area and RM128bil investment had been committed from the private sector.

On the question of whether Petronas was going to slow down its investments in PIPC, Yazid said: “Petronas has not told us of any slow down of investments at PIPC”.

It has been reported that Petronas is planning to cut RM50bil from its operating and capital expenditure (opex and capex) and defer some of its projects amid the plunge in oil prices.

Petronas started its cost cutting measures since the last quarter of 2014 when it projected that the oil price decline would remain for some time. Last year Petronas cut 30% in its capex and 20% off its opex.

“We hope that the current projects at PIPC would have a spillover effect to attract more investment in the future,” Yazid said.

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Indonesia: Establishment of Peatland Restoration Agency lauded

Fardah Antara 28 Jan 16;

Jakarta (ANTARA News) - President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) installed Nazir Foead, former conservation director at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as head of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) on January 20.

The agency, which has been set up based on Presidential Regulation Number 1 of 2016, is chiefly tasked with preventing forest fires that particularly occur in peatlands and to restore such areas gutted by forest fires, particularly on Sumatra and Kalimantan Islands.

While announcing the establishment of the agency on January 13, Jokowi, who described Foead as a competent and experienced figure, assigned the body to immediately draft an action plan to demonstrate to the world that Indonesia is serious about handling the damage caused to peatland areas.

After graduating from the University of Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Foead began his career at WWF in 1992 and has since then dedicated himself to forest conservation efforts.

He was member of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and deputy chairman of the Permanent Committee of the Environment and Climate Change during the period between 2011 and 2013. He was appointed as head of the Indonesian Program at Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA) in 2014.

Foeads appointment as the new agencys chief is based on Presidential Decree Number 3 of 2016, dated January 18.

Following his inauguration, he immediately chalked out the agencys action plan as he did not want to waste time in the race against forest fires that could recur any time.

The appointment of the environmental activist to lead the initiative has been lauded by Greenpeace.

"If peat protection regulations are sufficiently strengthened, Nazir will be in a position to save the countrys precious tropical peatland landscapes, thereby helping to reduce fires and carbon emissions," Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Teguh Surya noted in a statement on January 15.

Clearing and draining of peatlands for oil palm and pulpwood plantations is a major cause of Indonesias recurring fire and haze crisis, which last year impacted the health of millions in South-East Asia and cost Indonesia's economy an estimated $16.1 billion.

According to World Bank Indonesia Country Director Rodrigo Chaves, haze was the real cause of damage to the Indonesian economy, costing the nation twice as much as it took to rebuild after the 2004 tsunami.

As a result, the World Bank warns, Indonesia needs to develop a better; more comprehensive plan for preventing wildfires in the first place and dealing with their aftermath, or it may find itself hemorrhaging money in an unhealthy and growth-stagnating way.

"The establishment of a peat restoration body is a great start. Successful peat protection will depend however on further reforms, including ending secrecy over maps of industry concessions in forests and peatlands, to allow full public participation in monitoring and restoration," said Surya.

President Joko Widodo showed the way to end peatland destruction by personally damming a drainage canal to re-wet a peatland area in Riau province in late 2014.

"However, his initiative faltered due to a lack of policy clarity and coordination. For the new Peat Restoration Agency to overcome the potential hurdle of its limited authority, every level of government must provide full support including coordination and concrete action in the field," the Greenpeace activist said.

The Peat Restoration Agencys enabling decree targets a very modest 2 million hectares for restoration by 2020. This is far less than the total area of damaged peatland, which the government has vowed to restore.

"The Decree should aim higher than protecting just two million hectares out of more than twenty million hectares of Indonesia's peatlands. Preventing fires from returning will only be possible if all damaged peatland landscapes are restored, with clear indicators and deadlines," Teguh Surya said.

Climate consultant Wimar Witoelar wrote on the Jakarta Post recently that the appointment of Foead as BRG head is a clear signal that the nation intends to defend its forests and protect the environment by drastically limiting the risks of forest fires and haze.

This in effect is a clear follow-up to the Paris Agreement that commits the nations of the world to the curtailment of climate change, he said.

"President Jokowi is investing our human capital by appointing promising public officials such as Nazir, the initial head of the BRG," Wimar Witoelar stated.

The agency is a non-structural body under the President, and accountable to him.

Having a tenure until December 31, 2020, the agency will have a secretariat, four deputies, an expert team, and a technical steering team that will include provincial governors and relevant deputies and director generals.

The expert team members come from universities, research institutes, professionals and larger community.

Earlier, Environmental Affairs and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar explained that the agencys task is to restore the landscape of peatland ecology with regard to saving and protecting them as well as preventing them from fires or being burnt down.

Between two and three million hectares of peatland areas will be restored by the agency with the cooperation of several institutions and ministries such as the environmental affairs and forestry ministry, the public works and housing ministry, the agriculture ministry, the Agrarian and Spatial Layout Ministry and the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas).

No single country in the world has ever restored peatland in a large scale, she remarked.

Indonesias peatland area is estimated at 20.6 million hectares, or about 10.8 percent of Indonesias total land area. Of this, approximately 7.2 million hectare, or 35 percent, is located on Sumatra Island.

Peatland serves to preserve water resources, mitigate flooding, prevent sea water intrusion, support biodiversity, and control the climate through carbon absorption and storage.

The Secretary General of the environmental affairs and forestry ministry, Bambang Handroyono, said in Palembang, South Sumatra, on Jan 12, that a similar agency will also be established at the provincial level.

"At the national level, the restoration agency will be coordinated by the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Forestry, while at the local level, it will be under the coordination of the respective governor," he said.

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Indonesia: No need to panic over Zika says government

Nurul Fitri Ramadhani and Hans Nicholas Jong, The Jakarta Post 27 Jan 16;

The Health Ministry has said there was no reason to panic over the possible spread of Zika, a virus suspected of causing a rare birth defect. The ministry stated that no infections had been reported in the country, or even in the ASEAN region.

The ministry, however, warned Indonesian nationals against traveling to areas prone to the virus, such as South America.

“The government doesn’t see any need to impose a travel ban, but we recommend that people reconsider traveling to those areas until local authorities in those countries declare that the situation is under control” Health Ministry secretary-general Untung Suseno Sutarjo told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Ratna Budi Hapsari, the head of the emerging infectious diseases sub-directorate at the ministry, said that the government would step up its monitoring efforts to prevent the virus from entering the country.

“We have entry points at ports and airports. We will boost [surveillance] there,” she told reporters in Jakarta on Tuesday.

Health authorities have grown concerned with the spread of the dengue-like Zika virus since scientists in northeastern Brazil witnessed a surge in microcephaly cases, a rare birth defect that sees babies born with unusually small heads. The virus can affect motor skills and cause mental retardation.

Since then, Brazilian health officials have linked Zika to the microcephaly cases, with the country recording nearly 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly since October last year.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus is likely to spread to all countries in the Americas except for Canada and Chile.

The organization also reported that the disease’s rapid spread was due to a lack of immunity among the population and the prevalence of active Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the vector that transmits the virus. The same vector carries chikungunya and dengue fever.

Both Zika and dengue fever show similar early symptoms such as fever, rashes and joint pain. However, the clinical manifestation of Zika is not as severe as dengue fever, which can lead to shock and death.

According to Untung, in a tropical country like Indonesia, the Aedes Aegypti mosquito tends to breed within people’s homes and usually produces an outbreak of dengue fever when the rainy season enters its peak.

Untung said that the preventative measures directed toward Zika would mirror those deployed against dengue fever. These measures usually center on eliminating potential mosquito breeding places such as those found in bath tubs, sinks and water tanks.

“We are familiar with dengue fever and we already know what to do. As long as we keep up cleanliness, we are on the right track to preventing Zika,” Untung said, adding that he was more worried about dengue fever than Zika.

Nasronuddin, the head of Institute of Tropical Diseases (ITD) at Airlangga University in Surabaya, said that until now, there existed no medicine to cure the disease.

“To avoid the infection, we really have to keep clean and take care of our immune system,” he said.

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Thailand braces for 'mega-outbreak' of Dengue fever

Thailand is bracing itself for an even worse 2016 with experts warning the number of infections may be on par with the 1987 mega-outbreak.
Channel NewsAsia 28 Jan 16;

BANGKOK: After a year which saw an explosion of Dengue fever infections, Thailand is bracing itself for an even worse 2016 with experts warning the number of infections may be on par with the 1987 mega-outbreak.

Thailand recorded some 140,000 cases of infection last year, the highest number since the 170,000 cases of the 1987 crisis.

The first line of defense against the epidemic that has swept through Southeast Asia sees teams of local officials armed with machines spraying mosquito-killer, who patrol daily around Bangkok in an attempt to eliminate mosquito-breeding sites.

Officials have recorded 126 deaths with the most notable being TV actor Thrisadee Sahawong, who died after developing a series of complications related to the virus.

His death made the public realize that Dengue fever does not only affect those living in remote areas.

"More people are moving to the capital and that's why it's worse there than in the provinces or small towns. It's spreading because of urbanization and a lack of mosquito control," said Dr. Duangporn Pinsrilesikul from the Health Department of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration .

Thailand's Public Health Ministry is expecting Dengue cases to swell by more than 16 percent this year.

The reason for the rise is simple - mosquitoes have more places to breed now that chemical spraying is less effective and population clusters give the disease areas in which to propagate.

For many years in Thailand, Dengue fever was considered a disease that only affected children, but now most new cases reported are young adults, including patient Rath Sa-adying.

"While I had dengue fever, it also affected my liver. Since the dengue virus can cause liver damage, my liver became so enlarged that I couldn't eat anything," he said.

The virus starts with aching joints, a raging fever and a rash. If left untreated, it could lead to organ failure or even worse.

For decades, Thailand has been on the frontline of the fight against the Dengue virus. Finding a vaccine has proven difficult, in part because of the complex nature of the virus, but with the number of cases expected to rise again this year, the need for a vaccine is becoming increasingly urgent.

With the first Dengue vaccine already approved in Mexico, the Philippines and Brazil, Thailand is now under pressure to green light this long-term strategy to fight the potentially lethal disease.

"This vaccine is developed for about ten years but the vaccines is not 100 percent protection proof. We know that, but it is one of tools which can be helpful. In Thailand I think they plan to license this vaccine very soon. And once we've got the vaccine, I think it can reduce, somehow, the problems of the Dengue," said Kriengsak Limkittikul, an associate professor with the Faculty of Tropical Medicine of Mahidol University.

For now, Thailand's strategy is to eliminate breeding opportunities for the mosquitoes.

However, given the seriousness of the Dengue challenge, there are growing fears that the virus could be mutating as a result of the immunity that has built up in the region.

Without a preventive vaccine or cure, millions more will continue to suffer at the hands of a virtually invisible predator waiting to strike.

- Reuters/jb

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Zika virus 'spreading explosively': WHO chief

The Zika virus is "spreading explosively" in the Americas and the region may see up to four million cases of the disease strongly suspected of causing birth defects, the World Health Organisation said on Thursday.

Channel NewsAsia 28 Jan 16;

GENEVA: The Zika virus is "spreading explosively" in the Americas and the region may see up to four million cases of the disease strongly suspected of causing birth defects, the World Health Organisation said on Thursday (Jan 28).

As the number of suspected cases of microcephaly - thought to be linked to the virus - surged in Brazil, WHO head Margaret Chan said an emergency committee would meet on Monday to determine whether the Zika outbreak amounts to a global health emergency and how the world should respond.

Microcephaly causes babies to be born with an abnormally small head. Cases have soared in Brazil from 163 a year on average to more than 3,718 suspected cases since the outbreak, and 68 babies have died, according to the health ministry.

Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica and Puerto Rico have warned women to avoid getting pregnant for the time being.

Jitters over Zika have spread far beyond the affected areas to Europe and North America, where dozens of cases have been identified among people returning from vacation or business abroad.

France - which has logged five cases contracted by its citizens while travelling - urged women not to travel to French overseas territories in South America and the Caribbean.

There is currently no treatment for Zika and a top US health chief warned on Thursday the hunt for a vaccine could take years.

For decades after Zika's discovery in 1947, in a Ugandan forest from which it takes its name, the mosquito-borne virus was of little concern, sporadically causing "mild" illness in humans.

But the WHO's chief Chan told an assembly of member-states in Geneva the severity of the current outbreak was unprecedented. "The situation today is dramatically different. The level of alarm is extremely high," she said, with Zika also possibly linked to a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

"A causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth malformations and neurological syndromes has not yet been established, but is strongly suspected," Chan said.

She told WHO members that the virus "is now spreading explosively," in the Americas, where 23 countries and territories have reported cases.

The virus is not known to be transmitted person to person, but the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it was aware of one reported case of Zika through possible sexual transmission, and a second where the virus was found in semen two weeks after a man exhibited symptoms.


Marcos Espinal, head of communicable diseases and health analysis at WHO's Americas office, said the region could see between three to four million cases - a projection based largely on spread patterns of similar mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever.

WHO has said it expects Zika to spread to every country in the Americas except Canada and Chile.

According to the CDC, 31 cases of Zika have been documented in the United States since last year. It was not clear if the tally included three new cases reported in New York City on Thursday - one of them a pregnant woman. Three Canadians are also known to have been infected while travelling abroad.

All known North American cases involve people infected while out of the country. However, a recent study in The Lancet suggests the Zika virus could reach regions of the United States in which 60 per cent of the population lives, or some 200 million Americans.

US President Barack Obama has called for swift action to tackle the threat, on diagnostic tests as well as vaccines and treatments.

According to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the US government hopes a so-called Phase I clinical trial could begin later this year to test a Zika vaccine in people, but a finished product will take far longer.


Brazil has been the country hardest hit so far, and concerns are growing about this summer's Olympic games hosted in Rio de Janeiro.

Six months from the opening ceremony, the government has promised to attack mosquito breeding sites and protect visitors from the virus, from which there is no known prevention method aside from avoiding mosquito bites.

WHO's deputy chief Bruce Aylward told reporters it was "very, very unlikely" it would issue warnings against travel to Brazil, while the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, said it will "do everything" in its power to keep the Games safe from the virus.

Venezuela on Thursday said it had recorded 4,700 suspected cases of Zika - but no related cases of microcephaly.

Honduras also said it had registered 1,000 cases of Zika, which is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the species that also carries dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.

With concern over travel to Latin America spreading, two airlines in the region announced refund offers to pregnant women booked for travel.

Chilean-Brazilian airline Latam, the region's biggest, will refund or rebook expectant mothers with tickets to any of 22 affected countries or territories, while Chilean company Sky will refund those with tickets to Brazil. US carriers Delta and American Airlines have made similar offers.

- AFP/yt/ec/de

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