Thailand Reports First Cases of Zika-Linked Microcephaly

Nontarat Phaicharoen
160930-TH-spray-1000.jpg A city worker sprays chemicals to kill mosquitoes in an effort to control the spread of the Zika virus, at a school in Bangkok, Sept. 14, 2016.

Thailand on Friday became the first Southeast Asian country to link cases of Zika infection with birth defects, with Thai health officials confirming that exposure to the virus caused two babies to be born with microcephaly – abnormally small heads.

“Based on lab results, the technical committee concluded unanimously that the infants’ microcephaly was caused by the Zika virus in the mothers,” Dr. Prasert Thongcharoen, who chairs an advisory committee at the Thai Department of Disease Control, told a news conference in Bangkok.

The confirmation by Thailand signified the first cases reported in Southeast Asia of birth defects linked to the mosquito-borne virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“If found to be linked, these would be the first identified cases of Zika-associated microcephaly in Southeast Asia. If Zika is identified, viral sequencing would be necessary to determine the strain of the virus to determine whether it is a local or imported strain,” WHO’s Regional Office for South-East Asia, based in New Delhi, said a day before Thai officials announced the results of investigations into four possible cases establishing a link between Zika-infected mothers and babies exposed to the virus while in utero.

“Zika virus infection is a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of a pregnant woman and her unborn child. Countries across the [r]egion must continue to strengthen measures aimed at preventing, detecting and responding to Zika virus transmission,” Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the U.N. health agency’s regional director, said Friday in a statement that followed the Thai announcement.

“WHO also urges pregnant women as well as the rest of the general public to take precautions to limit mosquito-human contact, including wearing long-sleeved, light colored clothing; using mosquito repellant; sleeping under a bed net; and fitting windows and doors with screens wherever possible,” Singh added.

According to Dr. Prasert, of the four Thai mothers who were infected with Zika while pregnant, two gave birth to babies with microcephaly and a third woman gave birth to an infant with a small head, but health officials were investigating whether Zika caused this last case of a natal deformity.

Health officials are monitoring a fourth potential case, that of a pregnant woman infected with Zika who has yet to give birth, Prasert told reporters.

Thai officials urged the public to remain calm.

“[T]he message has to be delivered that this virus is not dangerous to everyone, only to pregnant women. And, if infected, we know that only one out of five [babies] may have microcephaly – not for every case,” Dr. Porntep Siriwanarangsun, chairman of the Preventative Medicine Association of Thailand, who also sits on the committee, told the news conference.

CDC issues travel, sex advisories

So far, no cases of microcephaly caused by Zika have been reported in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, according to health officials in those countries. But a handful of cases of Zika infection have been reported in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, following a spike in cases reported in Singapore.

Late last month, the city-state reported that the number of Zika cases had shot up from one to 115 in the span of five days. According to Bangladesh’s health minister, 19 cases have been reported of Bangladeshis being infected in Singapore.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an alert on Thursday advising pregnant women to postpone non-essential plans to travel to 11 countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia,  where they could be exposed to Zika.

On Friday, the CDC followed this up by advising men who live in or have traveled to areas where the virus is active – but who have shown no symptoms of infection – to wait at least six months before having sex after possible exposure to Zika. The CDC had originally advised men to abstain from sex for at least eight weeks after possible exposure.

Zika is spread mostly through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. The virus can be spread from a pregnant woman to her fetus and can cause birth defects.

A mosquito can become a carrier after biting an infected person, then biting healthy people. An infected person can also pass Zika to his or her sex partner, according to the CDC.

“As has been advocated all along, expecting mothers must protect themselves from Aedes bites. Communities must make their environment Aedes-free,” Dr. Lokman Hakim Sulaiman, Malaysia’s deputy director-general of health (public health), told BenarNews.

Melati A. Jalil in Kuala Lumpur and Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.


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