Health Officials in Thailand, Malaysia Send Out Different Messages on Zika

BenarNews Staff
160202-TH-zika-620 An Aedes Aegypti mosquito clings to human skin in a lab of the International Training and Medical Research Training Center in Cali, Colombia, Jan. 25, 2016.

There is no outbreak of Zika in Thailand with only one domestic case confirmed in 2016, Thai health authorities said Tuesday while downplaying reports about the country’s potential exposure to the mosquito-borne virus.

“The situation in our country is not an epidemic, unlike in other areas. And, in the past, Thailand never had epidemic levels caused by the Zika virus,” Amnuay Kagina, director of the Thai Department of Disease Control, told a news conference in Bangkok.

But health officials in neighboring Malaysia issued a public warning the same day, suggesting the country was vulnerable to the virus carried by Aedes mosquitoes – a species that also passes on dengue fever, a disease that afflicts Southeast Asian countries.

“There is a high chance that the virus, once it strikes, can spread swiftly and vastly in Malaysia, as we already have the fatal carrier, the Aedes mosquitoes – also responsible for our dengue problem,” Malaysian  Health Minister  S. Subramaniam told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

‘Coordinated response needed’: WHO

The statements from Thai and Malaysian officials came a day after the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika a “public health emergency of international concern.”

Cases of Zika have exploded in South and Central America within the past year, with 1.5 million cases reported in Brazil alone since April, Agence France-Presse reported.

WHO reported pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to the virus because Zika is suspected of causing congenital malformations and neurological complications in newborns. Pregnant Brazilian women infected with the virus have given birth to babies with undersized heads, according to reports.

“A coordinated international response is needed to improve surveillance, the detection of infections, congenital malformations, and neurological complications, to intensify the control of mosquito populations, and to expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect people at risk, especially during pregnancy,” Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s director general, said in declaring a Zika emergency.

Such a declaration by WHO is rare.

Two years ago, the U.N. agency was widely criticized for not issuing an early warning about the Ebola virus, which spread across West Africa rapidly, reportedly killing thousands of people.

“At present, the most important protective measures are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women,” Chan said in issuing the emergency declaration on Zika.

No vaccine

There is no specific treatment or vaccine available for the disease, WHO said. People infected with the Zika virus develop symptoms, including a mild fever and skin rash, which can last two to seven days, the agency said.

The virus is known to circulate in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, said WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the Atlanta-based American agency, Zika outbreaks have occurred before 2015 in Africa, Southeast Asia and islands in the Pacific.

To date this year, at least two cases have been reported in Southeast Asia: the case of a Thai man diagnosed and treated for Zika from Jan. 24 to 26, according to Thai health officials; and the case of a 27-year-old Indonesian man from Sumatra Island who was infected with the virus, AFP reported. In January, Taiwan also reported a case of a man from northern Thailand who came down with Zika.

‘Widespread throughout Thailand’

Several cases of Zika were reported in travelers returning from Thailand and seven cases of acute Zika infection across the country were confirmed between 2012 and 2014, according to a study published last year by the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

“These endemic cases, combined with previous reports in travelers, provide evidence that ZIKV [the Zika Virus] is widespread throughout Thailand,” said an abstract to the study.

“Thailand first found a Zika patient in 2012 and, after that, there have been an average of five people contracting Zika annually,” Dr. Pahurat Kongmuang, another official at Thailand’s Department of Disease Control, told BenarNews.

“Thailand has established a monitoring system for this sickness since 2013, and we are able to track down the disease, while some other countries in ASEAN cannot,” she said in a phone interview.

Amnuay, the department’s director, said that it mounted a campaign during the past two weeks to kill mosquitoes in their habitats, and that this would go on for another fortnight.

Malaysian, Bangladeshi response

In Kuala Lumpur, Health Minister S. Subramaniam announced that his ministry would circulate a set of guidelines to ministries and the public advising them on measures to protect people from being infected with Zika.

The guidelines, which were issued on Tuesday, for instance warn pregnant Malaysian women not to travel to countries where an outbreak of Zika is occurring.

The document also advises people traveling to Malaysia from South and Central America to go to the nearest hospital or health center should they develop a fever or rash.

Prime Minister Najib Razak echoed these concerns in a statement on Tuesday. He warned that Malaysia had to monitor the situation carefully because its climate was suited for the breeding of the Aedis species of mosquito.

“I have directed the health ministry to take all necessary preventive measures to protect Malaysians, especially pregnant women from the Zika virus,” Najib said in a message on his official website.

“We need to prevent and eliminate sources or vectors to [control] both an outbreak and the virus. … Do not give the slightest room for it to multiply,” he said.

Meanwhile, a senior health official in Bangladesh, said the Zika virus did not exist there.

"But we are not complacent because the vector, the Aedes mosquito, is present in Bangladesh,” Abul Hakir Md Shamsuzzaman, the official in charge of disease control at the Health Ministry, told BenarNews.

“It can enter into Bangladesh anytime. We will focus more on preventive measures such as destroying the habitat of the vector,” he said, adding that raising public awareness about Zika was another in the strategy in preventing the virus from spreading within his country.

Fahirul N. Ramli, Nontarat Phaicharoen and Kamran Reza Chowdhury contributed to this report.


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