Myanmar’s health and sports ministry is warning women not to travel abroad where cases of the Zika virus have been reported, as the country battles its own recent outbreak of the disease.
The ministry issued the warning after the Southeast Asian country confirmed its first case of the virus infection on Oct. 27, when health professionals detected it in a pregnant foreign woman in the commercial capital Yangon.
The ministry has advised Myanmar couples to avoid pregnancy within six months from the date of the announcement.
“The Zika virus was found only in a foreign pregnant woman but hasn’t spread among the population,” Dr. San Shwe Win, chairman of lower house of parliament’s Health and Sport Committee, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“To avoid pregnancy, we can only suggest that couples use contraceptives, but the major problem for Zika is mosquito control,” he said. “That’s why we must mainly work on suppressing mosquitoes. Our teams are monitoring at port entries, such as airports and border gates, checking people as to whether they have fever or not.”
The Zika virus has spread to more than 60 countries and territories since the current outbreak was identified as originating in Brazil in 2015.
The mosquito-borne virus, which is spread through bug bites or sexual contact, is an infectious disease that may cause fever, red eyes, joint pain, headache, and a rash. It can also cause the birth defect microcephaly that results in babies born with smaller-than-usual heads and brains.
Earlier this year, the virus made its way to Southeast Asia, hitting Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand.
‘Mosquitoes are everywhere’
One Myanmar woman who is five months’ pregnant told RFA’s Myanmar Service that she fears her unborn baby could be affected because of the high number of mosquitoes in the country.
“It’s very difficult not to be bitten by mosquitoes in Myanmar because they are everywhere,” said Phyo Phyo Aung, the secretary of All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), the umbrella organization for all student unions in the country.
Phyo Phyo Aung and her husband Lin Htet Naing, vice chairman of the ABFSU, were among the roughly 130 students and their supporters who were detained for participating in protests against a national education law that turned violent in the central Myanmar town of Letpadan in March 2015.
Both were sent to jail, but later released.
“I can only protect myself by applying mosquito repellent, wearing long-sleeved clothing, and not traveling to places where there are lots of mosquitoes,” she said.
Ma Htet, who got married in late October, said she has decided to take the advice of Myanmar’s health and sports ministry and wait six months before conceiving a child.
“Because most concerns about the Zika virus are about the unborn babies of pregnant women and infections during pregnancy that can result in birth defects, including microcephaly, I won’t get pregnant,” she said.
“I don’t want to have a baby that has microcephaly,” she said. “I will wait six months as the health and sports ministry has suggested. Six months is not that long.”
But Nang Pu, director of Myanmar’s Htoi Gender and Development Foundation, said the government should do more to educate women about Zika and its possible effects on their unborn children.
“The government should have contingency plans to fight against the Zika virus, she told RFA. “It should have a budget for this kind of catastrophe or disaster as well. We don’t have these kinds of plans in our country.”
“As far as [telling] couples that they should not conceive within the next six months, the government should educate women, especially those between 18 and 35 years of age, about Zika and provide free condoms for birth control,” she said.
Earlier this year, health authorities in several countries in East and Southeast Asia issued 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.
After two cases of Zika-related microcephaly in newborns was confirmed in Thailand in late September—the first linked to the virus in Southeast Asia, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)—the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that pregnant women not travel to Myanmar and 10 other Southeast Asian countries, and advised expecting women who live in the region to avoid mosquito bites.
The WHO also recommended that Myanmar and other Southeast Asian nations implement stronger measures against the virus, especially by controlling mosquitoes that thrive in the region’s tropical monsoon climate.
During the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Assembly in Naypyidaw on Sept. 30-Oct. 3, all 10 member states submitted a resolution to take preventative measures against Zika, said Dr. San Shwe Win, chairman of the lower house of parliament’s Health and Sports Committee.
“The methods of fighting Zika will all be the same,” he said, citing the monitoring of people entering the country at airports and land border crossings and educating people about what they can do to avoid getting the virus.
As of mid-October, Thailand and Singapore had each confirmed more than 400 cases of locally transmitted Zika infections, including dozens of pregnant women who had contracted the virus.
The day after Myanmar had announced that a foreign woman had been diagnosed with Zika, Thet Khine Win, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Health and Sports, held a news conference in the capital Naypyidaw to dampen growing concerns about contracting Zika.
“I would like to request that people not worry too much,” he said. “The health and sports ministry is working to fight against the Zika virus, and we would like to appeal the public to cooperate with us. The ministry will release information regarding Zika virus in a timely manner with full transparency.”
Reported and translated by Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.