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Zika: Thailand confirms first microcephaly case in region

by September 30, 2016 General

Thailand has reported the first confirmed cases of microcephaly linked to the Zika virus in South-East Asia, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged region-wide action.

Key points:

  • Thai authorities have confirmed 349 Zika cases since January
  • Thailand has been accused of downplaying Zika to protect tourism
  • South-East Asian health officials say they are stepping up monitoring

The confirmation came a day after US health officials recommended that pregnant women postpone non-essential travel to 11 South-East Asian countries because of the risk of Zika.

“We have found two cases of small heads linked to Zika, the first cases in Thailand,” Prasert Thongcharoen, an adviser to the Department of Disease Control, told reporters in Bangkok.

He declined to say where in Thailand the cases were found but officials have said they were not in Bangkok.

The WHO said the cases were the first of Zika-linked microcephaly in South-East Asia and the virus infection represented a serious threat to pregnant women and their unborn children.

“Countries across the region must continue to strengthen measures aimed at preventing, detecting and responding to Zika virus transmission,” Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the WHO’s regional director, said in a statement.

Zika has spread extensively in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past year or so, and more recently it has been cropping up in South-East Asia.

Thailand has confirmed 349 Zika cases since January, including 33 pregnant women, and Singapore has recorded 393 Zika cases, including 16 pregnant women.

Some health experts have accused Thai officials of playing down the risk of Zika to protect its thriving tourist industry, but Mr Prasert dismissed that.

“Thailand is not hiding anything and is ready to disclose everything,” Mr Prasert said.

He said other countries in South-East Asia might also have cases of Zika-linked microcephaly that they had not disclosed.

The WHO said Thailand’s response was an example for the region.

“Thailand’s diligence underscores the commitment of health authorities to the health and wellbeing of the Thai public, and provides a positive example to be emulated,” Dr Singh said.

Thailand’s confirmation of Zika-linked microcephaly comes ahead of China’s week-long Golden Week holiday, with Thailand expecting 220,000 Chinese visitors, up from 168,000 for the week in 2015.

Monitoring to increase across South-East Asia

Another Thai health ministry adviser urged everyone to work to stop the spread of mosquitoes but said people should not panic.

“Don’t have sex with a Zika-infected person. If you don’t know if they are infected, then use a condom,” Pornthep Siriwanarangsan told reporters.

“We can’t stop women from becoming pregnant … but we mustn’t panic.”

Health authorities in the region said they were stepping up monitoring, but there had been little testing and officials said the real number of cases was bound to be higher than the confirmed figure.

Malaysia, which has reported six cases of Zika, including two in pregnant women, said it would seek information from Thailand on the particular strain of the Zika virus there.

“We are taking serious notice of the reports in Thailand, and we will reach out to the Thai authorities for more information … so that we can be more prepared,” Malaysia’s health minister, Subramaniam Sathasivam, told Reuters.

“We do not test everybody, we test only those who are symptomatic,” said Paulyn Jean Rosell-Ubia, health secretary in the Philippines, which has reported 12 Zika cases.

“Yes, we are positive that the number is higher because we are not testing everyone.”

Authorities in Vietnam, which has reported three cases of Zika, ordered stepped up monitoring of pregnant women.

In Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, head of disease outbreak and surveillance Dwi Oktavia said there had been no sign of any increase in birth defects there. Indonesia had one Zika case in 2015 but has confirmed none since then.