Best of our wild blogs: 30 Nov 17

Volunteers needed for Dec 2017 marine litter survey
Celebrating Singapore Shores!

Exciting next step for R.U.M.!
Restore Ubin Mangroves (R.U.M.) Initiative

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A declining threat? On the trail of the Zika virus a year after hundreds of cases in Singapore

Monica Kotwani Channel NewsAsia 30 Nov 17;

SINGAPORE: In a quiet neighbourhood in eastern Singapore, a 47-year-old woman was developing a rash, fever and conjunctivitis. Had the symptoms developed separately, her General Practitioner would have barely batted an eyelid.

But together, the symptoms were indicative of the Zika virus, an illness that was spreading quickly around South America.

Patient A, as she became known, would be the first case of locally transmitted Zika in August 2016. As more people were diagnosed with the disease, which is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, authorities sought to control the mosquito population through regular fogging.

By the end of the year, about 450 people here were confirmed to have caught the virus.

“You have to have all of the stars lined up before you have that kind of transmission that you did last year,” said Emeritus Professor at Duke-NUS’ Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme Duane Gubler.

Prof Gubler told Channel NewsAsia that epidemic transmission is a “complicated interaction between the virus, the human host and the mosquito”, and all three “lined up” to propagate the virus quickly in a span of four months.

But just as quickly as new clusters appeared, Zika numbers dwindled globally as well as locally.

For scientists and infectious diseases experts, understanding the impact of the virus is a work in progress. With current research maturing over the next six months, Prof Gubler said the hope is to eventually be able to provide more answers than questions.

Until then, the focus for vulnerable countries needs to be on controlling the mosquito population.


Having circulated silently across Africa and Asia since the 1960s, Zika’s large outbreak was first reported on Yap Island, west of French Polynesia.

Prof Gubler said with some 5,000 reported cases, there were no signs of neurological diseases associated with Zika. They include microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with a smaller head due to abnormalities in the development of the brain. Another neurological disease linked to Zika is the Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes temporary or permanent paralysis.

“When the virus got to French Polynesia with over 30,000 cases, then they started to see a few cases of microcephaly,” Prof Gubler said.

By the time it got to Brazil where it infected hundreds of thousands of people, Prof Gubler said the number of babies born with microcephaly rose even more.

Prof Arijit Biswas, a Senior Consultant at the National University Hospital's Women's Centre said there appears to be a link between Zika and microcephaly in a developing fetus.

In Singapore, the Health Ministry told Channel NewsAsia that of the 17 women who were diagnosed with Zika during their pregnancies in 2016, two had their pregnancies terminated while one had a miscarriage.

The reasons behind this were not linked to Zika.

It added the other 14 women gave birth to babies with no signs of microcephaly. Last year, the Health Ministry announced it would monitor the development of these babies until the age of three.

“So far, none of the babies evaluated under the surveillance programme have shown signs of abnormalities and are developing well,” MOH said.

Prof Biswas, who who is also the lead of the Health Ministry's Clinical Advisory Group on Zika and Pregnancy, said the small number of pregnant women affected in Singapore also lowers the probability of having a baby with microcephaly.

Prof Gubler agreed, saying this could explain why in places like Brazil where hundreds of thousands are thought to have been exposed, doctors started to see a rise in the number of microcephaly cases.

Both he and Prof Biswas added another reason for the lack of microcephaly cases in Singapore could be due to genetic variances in the Zika strains.

In September 2016, health authorities and researchers concluded that the Zika virus strains found in the first two locally transmitted cases in Singapore were not imported from the South American strain.

“To our surprise, the Zika strain causing the local outbreak was derived from a local version that has been circulating in South-east Asia since the 1960s,” A*Star’s Bioinformatics Institute’s (BII) Sebastian Maurer-Stroh was later quoted in a publication.

A*Star said an analysis of the strains suggest Singapore’s strain diverged in early 2010, before the rapid spread through Brazil.

The Agency's BII said Zika strains prior to 2013 have not been linked to severe neurological complications.

While there is research to suggest a mutation in the strain circulating in South America could have been the reason for the high rates of microcephaly, Prof Biswas cautioned there is insufficient data on the microcephaly rates among different strains.


For infectious diseases expert Dr Leong Ho Nam, the drastic decline of cases this year came as a surprise. He said he expected the number of cases to rise. Instead, Zika activity, like in the rest of the world, has been low.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) said this year’s Zika clusters were contained in “small localised areas” through intensive and targeted vector control operations and community awareness.

After the last Zika cluster in Serangoon North Avenue 1 closed in September, Zika cases have been sporadically appearing after weeks of inactivity. For example, after more than six weeks, a new case was highlighted in the Health Ministry’s weekly infectious diseases bulletin last week, bringing the total to 67 this year. This is a sharp decline from the 453 Zika cases this time last year.

Both Dr Leong and Prof Gubler expect the virus to continue to spread, though it is unclear how rapid its spread will be.

Prof Gubler said he expects Zika to go the way of Dengue and Chikungunya epidemics. All three are transmitted by the aedes mosquito.

“Chikungunya caused a major epidemic in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s and then disappeared and then reappeared in 2004 and spread again over several years,” Prof Gubler said.

“Dengue has done the same thing- it comes and goes. After several years of epidemics, the virus goes underground and it becomes “a silent transmission”, characterized by mildly asymptomatic cases that are not recognised as Zika or as Dengue or as Chikungunya.”

Prof Gubler said that’s because the viruses undergo genetic mutations that cause them to have a lower potential for epidemics and infectivity.

But Dr Leong offered a different explanation, saying that the likely reason for the lack of Zika cases in Singapore could be due to a better control of mosquito breeding. He pointed out there were about 2,500 cases of Dengue this year, compared to more than 12,600 last year.

“But if you look beyond it and postulate and guess, is it because the Zika virus is not able to grow so well in Singapore?” he said.

“If Singapore is very good in controlling mosquito populations, my assumption would be that Indonesia and Thailand may not have set up the tremendous efforts Singapore has. Why aren’t they getting huge outbreaks of Zika?”

Compared to dengue, Dr Leong also pointed out that Chikungunya also does not spread as quickly.

“It thus suggests that the mosquitoes here are not quite adapted to Chikungunya and Zika transmission as compared to Dengue,” he said.

“We must not assume that the mosquito will treat Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya equally. We will assume that like us, some would like to eat more fruits, some would like more meat and some would like more vegetables. So there will be a different propensity for the virus.”

Prof Gubler noted that a Zika vaccine could be about three years from being approved if all goes well.

Aside from the development of a vaccine, Prof Biswas said another interesting outcome of research on the virus is the unravelling of the "mechanism of nerve cell destruction, particularly nerve stem cells".

"One suggested mechanism is the destructive effects of the virus on neural stem cell which play a very active role in the development of fetal brain," Prof Biswas said.

This, he said, could explain how microcephaly characteristics of a small brain can develop in fetuses infected with Zika.

But this same understanding is being explored by researchers in treating other diseases.

"Researchers are also exploring the possibility of using Zika virus in the treatment of brain tumors, utilizing the same nerve cell destruction properties of this virus," Prof Biswas added.


Until then, both experts agreed that mosquito controlling efforts need to be maintained on the island.

To that end, NEA told Channel NewsAsia it conducted more than 575,000 inspections between January and June this year. It said some 1,900 households were fined for mosquito breeding.

It said construction sites found to be breeding mosquitoes dropped from 11 per cent in 2013, to 6 per cent as of June this year, as a result of working with stakeholders.

Still, it said more than 20 Stop Work Orders were issued in the first half of the year.

“With more exposure, the viruses and mosquitoes will learn to adapt to each other. So if you are hungry and there is nothing to eat except vegetables, you end up adapting and liking vegetables,” Dr Leong said.

Another reason for eradicating the mosquito population is the worry that there are other viruses out there that could be transmitted through the aedes mosquito.

“I estimate there’s probably five or six viruses out there that can be transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti that will respond to the same type of pressures- urbanisation and global travel,” Prof Gubler said.

“That can move those viruses around the world. So the only way to prevent the epidemic of those viruses if they emerge is to have good mosquito control because we don’t have vaccines for them, we don’t have other antiviral drugs.”
Source: CNA/mo

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CID holds anti-gang camp on Pulau Ubin for at-risk teenagers

Aw Cheng Wei Straits Times 29 Nov 17;

SINGAPORE - One of the first things Ah Boi plans to do when he gets home is to apologise to his father and to spend more time with him.

"I used to fight with him whenever I did something wrong, came home late or disturbed my younger brother," said Ah Boi, 15, using a pseudonym. .

He described himself as someone who would stay out late with some of his friends from a gang, about 10 to 15 of them.

They would "lepak" at places such as Sentosa, shopping centres and coffeeshops, he said, using a colloquial term used for loitering aimlessly.

On Wednesday (Nov 29), Ah Boi completed a 1½ day camp at Pulau Ubin, organised by the Criminal Investigation Department's Secret Societies Branch to teach at-risk teenagers the dangers of joining gangs.

A talk during the camp, called All Can Escape (Ace), motivated him to mend his relationship with his father.

He heard former inmate Michael Teoh, 52, who shared the story of how he rebuilt his relationships with his stepfather and biological father after he was released from prison in 1988.

Mr Teoh said that his stepfather had kneeled down and asked him for forgiveness for abusing him physically as a child.

He also tracked down his biological father who cried and apologised to him for neglecting him when he was a child.

Mr Teoh's descriptions left Ah Boi with powerful images.

"I want to be a better person who spends more time with my family," Ah Boi said.

He took part in the camp as part of a voluntary six-month rehabilitation process called the Streetwise Programme for youths associated with gangs or their activities.

The police identified him as a youth at-risk in May after an image of a gang insignia was posted on his social media account.

According to the Societies Act, it is illegal to join gangs or participate in their activities or pretend to be a gang member.

Ah Boi said that he wanted to join a gang because it was "step cool" - which refers to the act of pretending to be popular. "I was bored," he added.

Another participant, who wanted to be known only as Adam, said that he questioned the friendships he made in a gang after attending Camp Ace.

The Secondary 3 student said that he was not sure if they would support him if he ran into problems with the law.

He heard Mr Teoh recount how his former gang mates would cheat him of his share of a robbery that they had planned.

Adam said: "They will not care about you, they might betray you." He does not plan to contact the members of his former gang any more for fear that he might be drawn into their illicit activities such as running gambling dens.

Both teenagers found the camp's activities tiring but fun. Their favourite part was an obstacle course on the first day, saying it helped them build confidence to face their fears and how to work in a team.

Adam said: "In the past, I had never learnt how to help each other."

Mr Teoh, who is taking part in the camp for the first time, said that he is happy that his experience helped the two boys.

Currently a swim coach, he was charged with first degree murder after a robbery he planned with his friends went awry. Eventually, the charge was reduced to robbery with hurt. He was 17 when he first went to prison.

The father of two said that he has made it his mission to help youths "get back to the right track" after he was released from prison.

He said: "At their age, they are prone to gangs, illegal things that will hurt their future careers."

"I understand their struggles. I've been there. I want to help them understand life better and change their current perspective," he added.

In a statement, a police spokesman urged parents and guardians to guide their children or wards to stay away from wrong company and be wary of negative influences on social media.

He reminded youths that they would be committing a crime whenever they are involved in gang-related activities such as chanting gang slogans and poems.

Those found guilty could be punished with a fine not exceeding $5,000 or be jailed for a period not exceeding three years or both.

Those who want to leave gangs or suspect that someone might be in a gang can call the Secret Societies Branch on 6435-0000.

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OBS’ mission to help youth be more rugged ‘more relevant’ today: PM Lee

Today Online 30 Nov 17;

SINGAPORE — Describing how children are more sheltered and have fewer chances to “rough it out” these days, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that they can learn to be more tenacious and resourceful by going for outdoor adventures with the Outward Bound Singapore (OBS).

Speaking at the institution’s 50th anniversary celebrations on Wednesday (Nov 29), he pointed out that its mission now is “more relevant than ever”, which is to “develop mentally and physically rugged youth to be active citizens inspired to serve the community”.

When former Cabinet Minister Goh Keng Swee set up the school in 1967, he thought it would help to build ruggedness and resilience in young Singaporeans in the early days of nationhood, PM Lee recalled.

Fast forward to today and the need for such training has not waned.

“Our children are growing up in a much more developed and urbanised environment,” Mr Lee said. “There are fewer opportunities to rough it out in the outdoors, and shelter from bad weather is usually just a few steps away. Parents, teachers and schools are also more protective. When our children go ‘camping’ now, they often sleep in the school hall or the classroom, or sometimes on the Floating Platform at Marina Bay. So that sense of nature, the outdoors and adventure is not quite the same.”

While the boys will eventually do National Service, it is “much better if they are already fit, toughened and confident before they are called up”, he added. “We want all our young people — girls as well as boys, to be rugged and tenacious, adaptable and resourceful.”

To that end, the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth developed the National Outdoor Adventure Education Masterplan last year. Part of the plan is for OBS to build permanent facilities on Coney Island to take in more students.

OBS has already started some activities on the island, PM Lee said, adding that with the expanded facilities, “every schoolgirl and schoolboy will have the opportunity to go through OBS at least once in their school years”.

Recounting his own experience at the school when he was 15 and among one of the first intakes of students in 1967, Mr Lee said that “OBS was ‘rugged’ in every sense of the word”.

The British Army had been organising holiday adventure camps on Pulau Ubin since the late 1950s before the People’s Association took over. Dr Goh was the association’s deputy chairman then.

The British Army continued to run first official OBS courses and two British majors headed the operations. Many of the instructors were non-commissioned officers from the British Army recruited here, and there were other Singaporean volunteers seconded from the civil service and Vigilante Corps.

The facilities and equipment were very basic and the dormitories were “makeshift”. “We had canoes, sailing dinghies, prismatic compasses and topographic maps, some simple rope and obstacle courses, but not much else,” Mr Lee said.

Pulau Ubin was even more rural then, unlike what it is now with better amenities such as paved roads.

“My coursemates and I found OBS a challenging experience, but we also enjoyed ourselves immensely. Our course lasted 17 days, longer than most of the courses OBS now runs... (We) had to get fit, to learn new skills, to encourage one another along on exercises and adventures. We did map reading and orienteering, and often got hopelessly lost. And we went canoeing (to Coney Island) and sailing (to Pulau Seletar), through sun and rain,” Mr Lee said of that period which “had a lasting impact” on the group and him.

“We were pushed to our limits, physical and as well as psychological. We gained self-confidence, became more resilient, and learnt to work with one another as a team. I think that was what Dr Goh intended.”

Noting that these are lessons that are hard to teach in the classroom, he added: “If OBS does its work well, Singapore will always have rugged youth who embody the OBS spirit ‘to serve, to strive, and not to yield’.”

Pioneer recalls OBS early days as it celebrates 50th year of founding
Noor Farhan Channel NewsAsia 30 Nov 17;

SINGAPORE: While the Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) campus in Pulau Ubin features impressive obstacle courses these days, it was far more spartan when it began 50 years ago.

As one of the pioneering instructors at OBS during its founding days, Mr Mathias Chay has seen the campus evolve.

“My fellow instructors and I would go into the swamps and chop trees, branches and so on to build obstacles,” said Mr Chay, who is in his 70s.

They placed these so-called "agility courses" near the sea so that if trainees were to fall, they would land in the water.

"It was all built by us, made up of the natural elements found around us. I suppose it was not as sophisticated but it did the job,” said Mr Chay at the OBS 50th anniversary celebrations on Pulau Ubin on Wednesday (Nov 29).

“The quarters where the students would stay were actually labourers' quarters. They were built for the workers of the granite quarry nearby,” he added.

Mr Chay also recalled the time when sea expeditions were done using sailboats given to them by the British Army.

“It was one of those old fibreglass boats that were very rudimentary. We called them bathtubs as they were very clumsy,” he reminisced.


One of Mr Chay’s adventure trainees at OBS was none other than Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

“The facilities and equipment were very basic. We had canoes, sailing dinghies, prismatic compasses and topographic maps, some simple rope and obstacle courses, but not much else,” recalled PM Lee in his speech at the anniversary celebrations.

"Pulau Ubin then was even more rural than today. There were prawn ponds, granite quarries, a few kampongs, old rubber plantations, lots of mangrove swamp and a bit of a beach. To us, it seemed like a large, unknown continent,” he said.

He said that the 17 days he and his camp mates spent there had a lasting impact on him.

"Today, the mission of OBS – to develop mentally and physically rugged youths to be active citizens is more relevant than ever," Mr Lee added.


Since OBS was formed in 1967, more than 500,000 Singaporeans have been through the course.

OBS instructor Melvin Lam said that current trainees are taught skills like kayaking, trekking, setting up tents and cooking in the outdoors.

“They also stay overnight in the forest. The environment we put them in puts them out of their comfort zone," he said.

Putting the trainees in an unfamiliar environment improves their endurance and resilience, said the 28-year-old, who has been instructing at OBS for a year.

It was such skills which student Haikal Chew learnt on his recent stint at OBS. His fondest memory was leading his team of 60 to kayak around Pulau Ubin.

“The most memorable was the sea expedition, where I was the sea expedition leader. (It) was tough but we made it to our destination and it was meaningful,” said the secondary three student at Woodlands Ring Secondary School.

CEO of National Youth Council David Chua said that there will be more team-based challenges in the high adventure elements of Coney Island when the expanded camp opens there around 2020.

“In the future we can look forward to new programmes not just from Coney Island but to expeditions that will be designed in the northern parts, Eastern parts and southern parts of Singapore,” he added.

At the event, PM Lee also launched the OBS50 anniversary book. It recounts the memories and experiences of former instructors and students at OBS.

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Malaysia: Rainfall warning issued as storm shows no signs of easing

razak ahmad, c.a. zulkifle, and kathleen ann kili The Star 30 Nov 17;

PETALING JAYA: With floods worsening in the east coast, continuous rain now threatens the northern peninsular states as well.

The rains, brought about by the north-east monsoon which started on Nov 13, became so heavy that the Malaysian Meteorological Depart­ment (MetMalaysia) issued a red alert on Tuesday for parts of Kelan­tan and Terengganu.

The department has since lowered it to orange for Perlis, Kedah (Langkawi, Kubang Pasu, Kota Setar, Pokok Sena, Padang Terap, Sik and Baling), Perak (Hulu Perak), Kelantan (Tumpat, Pasir Mas, Kota Baru, Bachok, Tanah Merah, Machang, Pasir Putih, Jeli and Kuala Krai) and Terengganu (Besut and Setiu).

A yellow alert means heavy rain is expected within the next one to three days and if there is continuous rain, it will not last for more than six hours and the rainfall will be less than 60mm.

A red alert signifies continuous heavy rain exceeding 240mm a day.

In Kelantan, the number of flood evacuees went up from nearly 7,000 at 8am yesterday to more than 8,000 five hours later.

Neighbouring Terengganu was also badly hit with more than 2,000 displaced persons seeking shelter.

According to the MetMalaysia website, there are four seasons in Malaysia – the south-west monsoon (May to September), north-east monsoon (November to March) and the inter-monsoon periods.

Separately, Tenaga Nasional Berhad said its emergency response team was ready to work round the clock to help out in flood-hit areas.

The power company said in a statement that the team would work to restore supply cuts caused by the floods as soon as it was safe to do so.

It said operations rooms in affected states would be activated to monitor the situation and channel the latest information on supply cuts.

The Inland Revenue Board (IRB), meanwhile, said its Pasir Mas Revenue Service Centre in Kelantan was temporarily closed.

The centre would resume operations only after the floods receded, the IRB said in a statement.
In the Klang Valley, heavy rains from the inter-monsoon season, which ended early this month, had led to near-capacity water levels in the area’s dams.

The Sungai Selangor, Klang Gates, Langat and Semenyih dams recorded water levels of 100%, according to the Selangor Water Management Authority website.

It’s best not to go out to sea now, say authorities
The Star 30 Nov 17;

JOHOR BARU: Fishermen and others involved in activities at sea have been advised to be on high alert for strong winds and rough waters.

Johor Health, Environment, Education and Information Committee chairman Datuk Ayub Rahmat said the current weather is not favourable for going out to sea, especially for recreational activities and those in small boats.

He said that according to the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia), the north-east winds are expected to hit 40kph to 50kph, with waves recording heights of about 3.5m in the northern Malacca Straits until Saturday.

“Although bad weather has not been forecast for the Johor Straits yet, it is best to stick to indoor activities during the monsoon season,” he said yesterday.

“Strong winds and rough seas are dangerous to small boats, marine recreation and sea sports,” he said.

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Indonesia: 150 Million People Live in Disaster-Prone Areas in Indonesia

NetralNews 29 Nov 17;

BNPB: 150 Million People Live in Disaster-Prone Areas in Indonesia (bnpb)
JAKARTA, NETRALNEWS.COM – Willem Rampangile, Head of the Indonesia National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), says 150 million Indonesians live in disaster-prone areas.

Willem said his side has already mapped the disaster-prone areas in Indonesia. From the map, it can be concluded there are 150 million Indonesian citizens living in disaster areas. He detailed that as many as 60 million people live in flood-prone areas, 40 million people in landslide-prone areas, and four million in tsunami prone areas.

"From Sabang to Merauke, it is all red. The government is aware of this matter, and that disaster risk reduction efforts and prevention plans have been included since the 2015-2016 medium term plans. These have been put on priority by the government," he said on Wednesday (29/11/2017).

He continued that there are now a number of areas affected by hydrologic disasters due to weather. Fortunately, the government has anticipated the condition and made preparations from the beginning before entering the rainy season. Preparedness efforts, among others, include the provision of necessary equipment and logistics including early warning systems and ready-to-use funds distribution.

With the release of emergency alert status, in the event of a priority disaster is the rescue and evacuation of victims and the community, the fulfillment of logistics and health. The government declared ready to cope with disasters both in terms of logistics, health, education and others.

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