The Zika virus is spreading rapidly in Latin America and the Caribbean and is prompting worldwide concern. Last week, our Ministry of Health cautioned that Malaysia is vulnerable to the spread of the Zika virus.
Update (1/9/2016): A Malaysian woman from Klang has been infected by the Zika virus after a three-day trip to Singapore on 19th August. The number of confirmed Zika cases in Singapore has risen to more than 100 and this new development has prompted the United States, Britain, Australia and Taiwan to advise pregnant women to avoid non-essential travel to Singapore.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) last week, the Zika virus, linked to severe birth defects in thousand of babies in Brazil, is “spreading explosively” and may infect 3 to 4 million people in the Americas, including the 1.5 million estimated to have already contracted it in Brazil.
According to the WHO, over 20 countries in the Americas have active Zika virus transmission and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national public health institute of the United States, is continually updating the list as more nations are added to the count.
Brazil, hit especially hard in recent months since November, has reported nearly 1 million cases of those contracting the virus and over 4000 cases where Zika may have caused microcephaly (a neurological disorder that results in babies being born with abnormally small heads) in babies born to women who were infected with Zika during their pregnancies. Meanwhile, Columbia has reported that 2000 pregnant women have tested positive for the virus.
Health officials in several of the affected countries are telling female citizens to avoid getting pregnant to give them a chance to get on top of the crisis.
“The recommendation is that people plan their pregnancies, that they avoid, if at all possible, to have babies this year,” said Deputy Health Minister Eduardo Espinoza of El Salvador. “This is the first time that we have suffered an attack of the Zika virus, and the first attack is always the worst.”
El Salvador has urged women not to get pregnant until 2018, the most extreme stance so far. The Salvadorian government, as well as other countries, has tried to stem the spread of the Zika virus by fumigating mosquito-breeding areas, and launching radio and TV public-service campaigns urging pregnant women to cover as much of their skin as possible to avoid mosquito bites. Others are trying to create genetically modified mosquitoes to reportedly tackle issues like this, but that is another controversial topic.
Other controversial issues such as allowing legal abortions for infected pregnant women or birth control to prevent pregnancy complicate the situation and disease control strategy even more.
What is the Zika Virus and why is it so serious?
The Zika virus is a flavivirus, part of the same family as yellow fever, chikungunya and dengue. Zika is commanding worldwide attention because of an alarming connection between the virus and microcephaly – a neurological disorder that results in babies being born with abnormally small heads. This may cause severe developmental issues and possibly even death.
WHO said a direct causal relationship between the Zika virus infection and the birth defects has not yet been established, but it is strongly suspected. However, further investigation is required to confirm the link.
Is this a new virus?
It was first identified in monkeys in Uganda in 1947. The first human case was detected in Nigeria in 1954 and there have been further outbreaks in Africa, South East Asia and Pacific Islands.
Zika was not previously considered a major threat to human health but in May 2015 it was reported in Brazil and has spread rapidly.
How is Zika spread?
The virus is transmitted when an Aedes mosquito bites a person with an active infection and then spreads the virus by biting others. Those people then become carriers during the time they have symptoms.
There have also been isolated cases of the virus being spread through blood transfusion (the virus is in the blood for a week) and also sexually transmitted. Studies are being carried out to determine how long the virus remains in semen.
Signs and symptoms
In most people, symptoms are mild - fever, headaches, rashes and possible conjunctivitis. What makes it really hard to trace is 80% of those infected never know they have the disease or are carriers.
In the Americas, there is no evidence that the Zika virus can cause death.
How does it affect pregnant women?
Risks are highest during their first trimester as it is now found that this virus passes through amniotic fluid to the growing baby, which is very unusual for flaviviruses. Other flaviviruses like dengue or chikungunya are not known to do that.
Can Zika affect the growth of young children?
Young children may be at risk at contracting the Zika virus, however, the condition microcephaly is only associated with the Zika virus in still developing foetuses - no other growth disorders have been linked to young children thus far.
Who is at risk of being infected?
Anyone who is living in or travelling to an area where the Zika virus is found.
How do you know if you are infected?
Through blood samples. However, there is no commercial testing kit for Zika. Diagnosis can be difficult as the virus can cross-react with other viruses such as dengue and yellow fever.
Any treatments available?
No specific medication. Normally treatments would be to get more rest, drink more fluids to prevent dehydration and acetaminophen to reduce fever.
Is Malaysia at risk?
Yes. Last week, the Health Ministry had cautioned that Malaysia is vulnerable to the spread of the Zika virus, because of the high presence of Aedes mosquitoes in the country. Based on inspections and the high number of dengue cases around the country, the density of Aedes mosquitoes is still high. Mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya virus also spread the Zika virus.
Currently, there are no confirmed cases reported in Malaysia, but the Ministry of Health is monitoring the situation closely as dengue cases are increasing.
Update:There is now one confirmed case in Klang. The woman is believed to have been infected in Singapore.
What can you do to protect yourself?
- Not all the mosquitoes are the same. Mosquitoes that spread the Zika virus are usually active in the day so take extra care during this time.
- Wear long trousers and long sleeved shirts thick enough to block mosquito bites.
- Sleep in air-conditioned, screened and closed rooms.
- Sleep under a mosquito bed net.
- Avoid travelling to countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean affected by the virus; this is especially important for pregnant women.
- Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registered insect repellents.
What if I have to travel to those countries?
- Choose hotels or lodging with air conditioning
- Wear long sleeved shirts and long trousers
- Buy a mosquito net and bring that with you on your travels
- Immediately seek medical professional help if you suffer from any of the symptoms
For more information, here’s a fact sheet to advise you on what you can do to prevent mosquito bites on your travels.
What can you do for your community?
- Remove small water reservoirs such as flower pots, empty bottles and discarded tyres (the favourite breeding grounds of Aedes mosquitoes)
- Seek medical attention immediately if you suffer from any of the symptoms
For more information about mosquito control, please click here.
It is important for pregnant women to take extra precaution during this time and the CDC and WHO have advised against travelling to infected areas. Another major concern is that travellers will bring the diseases back to their countries and spread the virus further. Although the virus is not new, there is still much to learn about it as it has seemingly evolved and scientists and doctors are stressing on the importance of erring on the side of caution.
So what we can do now is increase our own awareness, be responsible citizens that do our part to protect ourselves as well as the community and to stop the spread of the virus as best we can.