Zika concerns could test Singapore's efforts to boost birth rate: Expert

Channel NewsAsia 7 Sep 16;

SINGAPORE: Singaporean pre-school teacher Siti is determined to try for a baby even as Zika infections spread across the Southeast Asian nation. She just does all she can to avoid mosquito bites.

"I really love kids and want to have one of my own," the 37-year-old who declined to give her full name said after a procedure at the fertility clinic of KK Women's and Children's Hospital, the largest facility for women's health in Singapore. "I'm not postponing my pregnancy plans but I'm taking all precautions I can."

The mosquito-borne virus has been linked to a spike in microcephaly, a rare birth defect, in Brazil, which has so far been the hardest hit by an outbreak affecting large parts of Latin America. Babies born with the defect have undersized heads and brains. In adults, the virus - which can also be sexually transmitted - has been linked to a rare neurological syndrome called Guillain-Barre.

Economists say concerns about the birth defect could dent the Singapore Government's efforts to boost the number of babies born to its citizens. The city-state, a major financial hub, has one of the world's lowest birth rates and a rapidly aging society, while more than a third of its 5.5 million population are foreigners.

"It could lead to some delay in people who are going to get pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant," said Michael Wan, an economist at Credit Suisse. "But it's a bit too early to tell."

The low birth rate, and a drive to wean the economy off foreign labor, prompted the government last year to start giving out as much as S$10,000 in cash to Singaporeans who have a baby.

Singapore health authorities have urged pregnant women or those trying to conceive to avoid mosquito bites and take precautions since the first case of locally transmitted Zika was detected on Aug 27. Since then, more than 280 people have become infected, of which two were pregnant.

In their guidelines, they highlight the risks for pregnant women that are associated with Zika. They do not urge women who are otherwise healthy, and whose partners also show no symptoms of infection, to postpone pregnancy.

"Use insect repellent. Practice safe sex for the duration of your pregnancy if your partner has been exposed to Zika," reads the advice for pregnant women on the Singapore Government's main online portal. "Note that a positive Zika test may not mean your unborn child is infected or harmed."


Citing a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Singapore's Government portal says Zika infected women have a 1 to 13 percent chance of giving birth to a child with microcephaly.

There is currently no vaccine for Zika, and Singapore has said the virus is likely to be in the country to stay, given the prevalence of the Aedes mosquitoes that carry it in this small, tropical island. Singapore has been battling dengue, another mosquito-borne virus, for decades.

The World Health Organization, which has praised Singapore's handling of the Zika outbreak, recommends people considering pregnancy get counseled about the risks in Zika-affected areas, and are told that their options include delaying pregnancy.

In Singapore, some women are not taking any chances. "Some patients, particularly expatriates, are calling to ask if they should relocate back to their own home country," said obstetrician Kelly Loi of the Health and Fertility Centre for Women.

But Aude Vazart, a French engineer who gave birth in Singapore last week, told Reuters leaving the island to avoid Zika was "too extreme". "There are thousands of diseases I could get, even in France," the 29-year-old said.

- Reuters

Singapore Zika cases hit 283; potential new cluster Elite Terrace
Channel NewsAsia 7 Sep 16;

SINGAPORE: Eight new cases of locally transmitted Zika were confirmed on Wednesday (Sep 7), bringing the total number of confirmed cases in Singapore to 283. Authorities added that there is a potential new cluster in the Elite Terrace area at Siglap, involving a previously reported case and a new case today.

In a joint statement, the Ministry of Health (MOH) and National Environment Agency (NEA) added that, of the eight new cases, two are linked to the Aljunied Crescent / Sims Drive / Kallang Way / Paya Lebar Way cluster, and one is linked to the Bishan Street 12 cluster. The other four cases have no known links to any existing cluster.

NEA said that it will continue with vector control operations in the cluster areas at Aljunied Crescent/ Sims Drive/ Paya Lebar Way/ Kallang Way/ Circuit Road/ Geylang East Central/ Geylang East Avenue 1, as well as cluster areas at Bedok North Avenue, Joo Seng Road, and Bishan Street 12. It will also be carrying out vector control operations and outreach efforts at the potential new cluster at Elite Terrace.

It added that as of September 6, a total of 150 breeding habitats have been found and destroyed in the cluster areas, of which 99 are from homes, and 51 from outdoor areas.

From Sep 7, members of the public can get details on current clusters at NEA's website.

- CNA/nc

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Malaysia: Johor government to amend water blueprint

The Star 8 Sep 16;

MUAR: The Johor government will make some changes to the existing Sungai Skudai Water Blueprint 2014-2015 to improve the conservation works on the river.

State Health and Environment Committee chairman Datuk Ayub Rahmat said the blueprint was now being fine-tuned as the government realised that there were some areas that needed improvements in order to ensure the success of the project.

“We are looking for the right methods to make improvements on the existing blueprint and to overcome the problems where our water sources at several rivers cannot be utilised to solve the water crisis in Johor,” he said after officiating the Sultanah Fatimah Specialist Hospital (SFSH) Emergency and Trauma Department Triage building here recently.

Also present were SFSH director Dr Salehudden Abd Aziz and SFSH Emergency and Trauma Department chief Dr Norhaya Abdullah.

Ayub added that the responsibility of maintaining the cleanliness of rivers should not only be borne by the state government but instead should be shared between the state government and the surrounding communities. – Bernama

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Malaysia key conduit in global illegal ivory trade

TRAFFIC 8 Sep 16;

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 8th September 2016—A new TRAFFIC analysis points to Malaysia as the world's paramount ivory transit country, with its ports serving as a major gateway for the flow of tonnes of illicit ivory between Africa and Asia.

Ivory seizure records from January 2003 to May 2014 linked Malaysia to 66 confiscations worldwide totalling a massive 63 419 kg. Only 19 of the seizures were made in Malaysia. The remaining 47 occurred outside the country, mostly after shipments had passed undetected through Malaysia’s ports.

"The sheer volume of ivory flowing through Malaysia's ports has flagged it as a country of concern at the global level. Getting tough on the traffickers involved in smuggling ivory into Asia should be a top priority for national enforcement agencies,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, author and Senior Programme Manager for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.

The vast majority of the 63 tonnes came from just 26 large-scale seizures. Large shipments and seizures, over 500 kg in weight, point to the potential involvement of organized criminal networks.

The report, Malaysia’s invisible ivory channel: An assessment of ivory seizures involving Malaysia from January 2003-May 2014 (PDF, 3 MB) shows that the Malaysia-linked seizures involved the import, export and re-export of ivory from at least 23 countries and territories around the world.

Particularly, it documents Malaysia’s progression over the years to the current unenviable position as the principal transit point for ivory sourced in Africa and redirected to Asia, especially Viet Nam, Hong Kong and China.

More than 30% of all seizures originated from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda—the three major exit points in Africa for the world’s illegal elephant ivory trade. Seizures also linked Malaysia to Kenya and Uganda in the trafficking of 23 rhino horns between August 2010 and December 2013.

Malaysia has been implicated in further seizures beyond the study period involving at least five tonnes seized in Australia, Kenya, Thailand and Viet Nam after passing through the country. In July 2016, Malaysian authorities seized more than a tonne of ivory originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Just last week, 12 suspects were arrested in connection with the smuggling of 114 pieces of cut ivory and other wildlife parts, that were seized from premises in Malaysia.

While commending this recent seizure, TRAFFIC urges Malaysia to intensify its collaboration and communication with ivory source and consumer countries and recommends authorities enhance their risk indicator and profiling techniques to detect high-risk shipments.

Malaysia is one the eight countries of ‘primary concern’ that had been identified by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as being most heavily implicated in the illegal trade in ivory, requiring Malaysia effectively to implement a National ivory Action Plan (NIAP) to address the situation.

“With no open ivory markets, Malaysia’s role is purely one of transit. It can extricate itself from this situation if its National Ivory Action Plan focuses efforts on tracking and dismantling the criminal networks using Malaysia as a transit point,’’ said Krishnasamy.

Efforts by all countries subjected to the NIAP process to tackle this problem, including Malaysia, will come under scrutiny at the 17th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES which takes place from 24th September-5th October 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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Malaysia: Perhilitan catches two wild elephants in Jeli

BERNAMA New Straits Times 7 Sep 16;

JELI: The Kelantan Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) managed to catch two out of the six wild elephants that were destroying crops in Kampung Lawar here on Aug 31.

Its director Mohamad Khairi Ahmad said the two female elephants, aged 15 and 30 years and weighing between one to two tons were caught by using the immunisation shots.

“On Aug 31, we have received complaints from villagers claiming to have run into a herd of elephants while picking durians in the garden.

“Kelantan Perhilitan subsequently sent eight personnel to the village to monitor and catch the elephants on the day the incident was reported,” he said when contacted here today.

He said the department would continue to monitor and track the remaining four elephants believed to be still roaming in the village area.

Mohamad Khairi said the two captured elephants were still placed in Kampung Lawar while awaiting permission to transfer these mammals to the Kuala Gandah National Elephants Conservation Centre in Pahang.

Meanwhile villager Abdul Mutalib Abdul Rahman, 69, said he reported the matter to Perhilitan out of fear for his safety after he came aross the herd of elephants in his garden.

“I heard a sound like an explosion about 300 metres from where I stood in the garden and was surprised to see a herd of elephants breaking bamboo groves,” he said. --Bernama

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Indonesia: RAPP accused of peatland conversion

Rizal Harahap The Jakarta Post 7 Sep 16;

A government team from the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) that recently made an impromptu visit to check on alleged peatland conversion by PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP) was denied entry to the site by security guards.

BRG head Nazir Foead, accompanied by BRG official Haris Gunawan, forest rangers, Forestry and Environment Ministry officials and villagers, said RAPP guards at the plantation in Meranti Islands regency asked to see a permit letter.

“It was an impromptu visit. Of course we did not carry any letter,” he said on Tuesday. “I just wanted to check and talk,” he said.

One of the forest rangers asked a security guard to call his superior, but he later told them the boss could not be reached by phone.

“They did not throw us out, there was no physical altercation, but they hampered us all the same. The company was not cooperating, and I suspect something fishy. We could not take pictures, could not check the coordinates,” Nazir said.

Locals said the company had converted about 50 hectares of peatland to plant acacia in the past two months.

Nazir said his office had summoned RAPP and they had met in Jakarta on Aug. 2, with RAPP saying all its activities were legal.

In a written statement, RAPP said it regretted the “lack of coordination among our security guards” that hampered the BRG visit on Sept. 5.

“We will discuss the results of field verification with the BRG this week,” the company stated on Tuesday. (evi)

Plantation neighbors in constantly recurring fear of peatland fires
Rizal Harahap The Jakarta Post 7 Sep 16;

Yadi, 60, of Sidodadi, Bengkalis regency, Riau, has for the last three years been gripped with worry because every time the dry season starts the vast peatland near his place always catches on fire.

For the last three days, for instance, dozens of hectares of peatland in his village have caught fire, thanks to a reckless oil palm plantation worker who cleared the land by burning it.

“I am worried that my place will also catch on fire, but I have no other choice except surviving here. I don’t know what work to do if I move from here,” said the grandfather of five who hails from North Sumatra and earns a living as a plantation keeper.

He said the area easily caught on fire because the water that kept the peatland wet had been drained by a big canal called the Gotek 010, which passed through the Giam Siak Kecil Nature Preserve and ended in a natural lake.

In 2014, he said, when the canal was dammed by the Riau Natural Resource Conservation Agency (BKSDA Riau) the water was abundant and the peatland became humid.

“Yet, the dam has been damaged by illegal loggers because the canal was the only access to transport the illegal logs out of the conservation area and the peatland water has drastically lowered,” Yadi said.

He said if the government dammed the canal or even permanently closed it the people would be happy because the water would not go anywhere and the peatland would be wet and thus would not easily catch on fire.

During his visit to the site, Nazir Foead, the head of the peatland restoration agency (BRG), promised to close the canal and only leave a small part of it as a water source during fires.

Nazir said that if it was impossible to totally close the canal, then numerous dividers would be provided along it to help control the height of the water surface.

Other measures to prevent fires include wetting the peatland with water taken from artesian wells. Nazir said digging an artesian well was relatively cheap, as it only cost some Rp 3 million (US$228) per unit.

He said artesian wells had been proven effective to fight peatland fires in Rimbo Panjang, Kampar regency, in just one-and-a-half hours. “The high expenses for operating firefighting helicopters can be switched to preventive measures,” he said.

He added the BRG had the task to make the burned peatland wet again, thus making it difficult to catch on fire in the future.

When the peatland humidity was already maintained the restoration program would be continued to the re-vegetation stage. At this stage the peatland in the conservation and protected areas would be planted with local vegetation that would easily grow well, live long, be resistant to wetness and not need special care.

For peatland belonging to the people, the owners would be asked to run plantations without burning land. They would also be asked to switch to commodities more suitable for peatland, such as pineapples, coffee, coconuts and sago.

“The government will with help with experts and seedlings. The BRG will run the program together with relevant ministries and regional administrations until 2020,” he said.

He affirmed that all burned and damaged peatland would be restored, including the 875,000 hectares that caught on fire last year across Indonesia.

He said restoration had actually been planned for 2 million hectares of peatland in seven affected provinces in Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua. “But the BRG will not close its eyes on burned locations outside the targets,” he said.

He added the BRG was currently preparing a regulation on peatland restoration to force all companies to restore damaged peatland in their respective concession areas.

The companies’ obedience to maintaining the depth of the canal water surface at 30 centimeters below the surface of the ground would be monitored using special censors automatically connected real time to the server at the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT).

He said if the peatland was poorly managed and the humidity went down to the dangerous zone, a warning would pop up. “That way the concession owners could be warned to look for water resources to rewet the peatland,” he said.

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