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Zika Virus Becoming Public Health Challenge in Southeast Asia

After plaguing much of Brazil and the Caribbean since late 2014, the Zika virus “crisis”—such as it is—seems to have migrated eastward—far eastward.

After plaguing much of Brazil and the Caribbean since late 2014, the Zika virus “crisis”—such as it is—seems to have migrated eastward—far eastward.

New data suggests that the mosquito-borne infection is increasingly becoming a public health challenge for officials in several countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. Although numbers in these countries still pale in comparison to those seen in many areas of the Americas, they are growing.

The Today newspaper in Singapore, for example, reported on September 26 that the city-state has confirmed six new locally-transmitted Zika virus cases in recent days, bringing the country’s total to 393 since the start of the current mosquito season. The paper cites Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) as its source for the data.

The good news, for now, is that the NEA has not identified any new case “clusters,” meaning that the new cases originated from areas of the city where Zika virus-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitos have already been identified (there are nine active clusters currently). To date, 16 of those infected have been pregnant women, as confirmed to Today by Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH). Today reports that this figure is double that last presented by the MOH on September 13.

The South China Morning Post, meanwhile, reports that health officials in Singapore are mulling plans to establish a national surveillance program to monitor babies born to pregnant women infected with Zika virus.

In the nearby Philippines, a Zika virus outbreak may be in the embryonic stage. The country’s MSN News reported the confirmed identification of three new locally transmitted cases, bringing the total number of cases there to date to 12. MSN also noted that officials emphasized that the outbreak is not yet cause for alarm, given that locally transmitted cases account for a relatively small percentage of the more than 200 total Zika virus cases currently in the country, but that they also warned residents not to be “complacent” and to take precautions against infection.

In all, 10 of the 12 locally transmitted cases of Zika virus are in the Western Visayas region of the country, and eight involve women. Included in this figure is the Philippine’s first case in a pregnant woman. Philippines health secretary Paulyn Ubial told the Bangkok Post that a 22-year-old woman from the central island of Cebu who is 19 weeks pregnant with her first child has been infected.

“Initial ultrasound did not detect any fetal abnormalities,” Ubial told the paper. “She will be monitored regularly during the entire period of the pregnancy.”

According to the report, health officials in the Philippines have dispatched “special teams” to all the affected areas in an attempt to identify the source of the infections and to recommend measures to prevent spread. Ubial called on the public to destroy mosquito breeding areas, use insect repellent, and wear condoms during sex.

So far, 200 locally transmitted cases of Zika virus have been confirmed in Thailand.

Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.