Health authorities in East and Southeast Asian countries have issued issuing public warnings about the Zika virus and urged people to take measures to reduce the chances of infection, as they prepare for the possible spread of the virus from other countries.
Most cases of the mosquito-borne virus have occurred in Central and South America, especially Brazil where it has been linked to an increase in the number of cases of microcephaly in pregnant women, a condition where babies are born with small heads and often have neurological disorders.
There is no treatment or vaccine available for the Zika virus, which is usually nonfatal and whose symptoms include headaches, muscle and joint pains, slight fevers and rashes. Most people who contract the virus do not display any symptoms.
On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika a global health emergency and began setting up monitoring sites in poor countries with high birth rates, amid concern that the virus could spread to Asia and Africa.
The WHO’s office for Southeast Asia issued a statement urging countries in the region to increase surveillance and take preventive measures against the Zika virus.
Chinese health officials said last Friday that the possibility of the spread of the mosquito-borne virus was low because there were fewer mosquitoes during winter and spring, China Daily reported.
Nevertheless, China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention said the country faced the risk that the virus could be imported from other nations and regions, and that citizens should remain alert.
Hong Kong Health Minister Dr. Ko Wing-man held an interdepartmental meeting on Monday to assess the risk of an outbreak and establish prevention and control measures against infections, according to the South China Morning Post. He will hold a second such meeting on Friday to review the measures that have been taken.
Health authorities in Hong Kong also are concerned about the city’s understaffed and overburdened health care sector as it begins to deal with the peak of the winter flu season should a Zika outbreak occur, the report said.
The island of Taiwan, which China claims as one of its provinces, has confirmed one case of the virus this year in a man who arrived there from Thailand and set off a temperature scanner at Taoyuan International Airport.
Destroying breeding places
Dr. Ly Sovann, spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Health, told RFA on Monday that he wanted to urge pregnant Cambodian women returning from certain regions such as Central and South America, to have a medical checkup at the Pasteur Institute in the capital Phnom Penh, which has a Zika tracking system in place. The medical institution has isolated the Zika virus in past years, according to information on its website.
The country has recorded only one case of a pregnant woman from Kampong Speu province in the South who became infected by the Zika virus in 2010, Ly Sovann said.
Dengue fever, another mosquito-borne illness found in countries with tropical climates, is more common in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries, although its symptoms are similar to but more severe than those of the Zika virus, he said.
“It has the same mode of infection as does dengue fever, so if you are worried about Zika, it is likely you are worried about dengue fever,” he said. “Therefore, your most important job is to destroy places where mosquitoes breed.”
Spraying insecticides to kill mosquitoes is only a temporary preventive measure that’s done whenever there is a high outbreak of a disease such as dengue fever, he said.
“But the most important basic prevention is that together people must clean up places and containers that can hold water such as cans and pots that can allow mosquitoes to breed,” Ly Sovann said said.
Cambodia has the necessary funds to fight the Zika virus in its national budget and from international donor organizations such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, and the United States military, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USAID, he said.
Vietnam is strictly monitoring tourists from countries where infections have been found, according to state media reports, although there have been no reports of the virus there.
The country has set up about 20 Zika checkpoints in the North and 10 in the South, although the virus infection is difficult to detect because most people who contract it show no symptoms.
Airport workers have started monitoring tourists’ temperature and collecting information from them about their health. Those suspected of being infected by the Zika virus are held in quarantine while they undergo medical tests.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Health has urged hospitals to draw up plans to prevent the spread of the Zika virus. The ministry said the country’s medical facilities are able to test those suspected of infection and get the results within six hours.
The WHO is working with the country’s Ministry of Health to improve its surveillance and laboratory diagnosis capacity for the virus in Vietnam as well as issuing information to the public.
The ministry, in the meantime, has called a meeting of its Emergency Operating Center, to stay on top of global developments concerning the virus.
Health officials in Laos are concerned about the spread of infections from tourist from countries where the prevalence of the Zika virus is high, especially Latin America.
They are urging citizens to take protective measures while the Zika virus is breaking out sporadically in other countries around the world.
Earlier this week, the United Stated reported the first domestically spread case of a Zika infection, and on Thursday Spain said a pregnant woman who had traveled to Colombia had been diagnosed with the virus in the first such known case in Europe.
Like Cambodian health officials, Lao health authorities have suggested that people employ the same protective measures used to ward off the spread of dengue fever.
The Lao Ministry of Health has advised citizens to close and conceal all containers, rinse out water vessels, put guppies in water jars so they eat any mosquito larvae, and clean up areas around houses to eliminate places where the bugs can breed.
The possible spread of the Zika virus has not yet been cause for concern among health officials in Myanmar, where attention has focused on the new incoming government.
Playing down the risk
North Korea, which does not have a tropical climate conducive to mosquitoes, has its own health care problems and business presence in other Southeast Asia countries.
Although authorities there have not yet publicly addressed the Zika virus threat, officials in the isolated country sometimes put policies in place when virus outbreaks occur in other parts of the world to ensure that infected people cannot enter.
Kim Jong Un had ordered a quarantine that virtually shut off the country from outside visitors between October 2014 and March 2015 to keep out those infected with the Ebola virus. The country closed its borders to tourists and imposed a 21-day mandatory quarantine period for arrivals from abroad.
While Malaysian and Singaporean health officials have warned of a high risk of spreading if the virus is introduced there, officials in Thailand, which has had only one confirmed case of the virus this year, has played down the threat posed by Zika, Reuters reported.
Zika is not new in Thailand, which had its first confirmed case in 2012, and no more than five cases annually since then, Dr. Pahurat Kongmuang, a health official at the Department of Disease Control, told RFA.
The country is tackling an increase in the number of cases of dengue fever as well as trying to prevent the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) after a second case of the virus was detected in late January.
Indonesia, which has reported a domestic case of the Zika virus, has requested the International Atomic Energy Agency help it control its mosquito population, Reuters reported. The United Nations nuclear agency has suggested using exposing laboratory-bred male mosquitoes to nuclear radiation to make their sperm sterile before releasing them into the wild to mate.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese services. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.