The United Nations health agency today urged countries across the South-East Asia region to continue to take decisive action to prevent, detect and respond to Zika virus, following news that Thailand has confirmed two cases of Zika-related microcephaly.
“Zika virus infection is a serious threat to the health and well-being of a pregnant woman and her unborn child. Countries across the region must continue to strengthen measures aimed at preventing, detecting and responding to Zika virus transmission,” said Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director for the South-East Asia Region of the UN World Health Organization (WHO).
The agency said that the confirmed cases of Zika-related microcephaly in Thailand, along with other neurological disorders, can occur when a neonate has been exposed to Zika virus in utero.
“Thai authorities have been active in detecting and responding to Zika virus,” Dr. Khetrapal Singh said. “Thailand’s diligence underscores the commitment of health authorities to the health and well-being of the Thai public, and provides a positive example to be emulated,” the expert added.
The presence of Zika virus in the WHO South-East Asia region has been documented in recent years, including in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Maldives and Thailand.
Since a Public Health Emergency of International Concern was declared in February, WHO has been working with countries across the region to strengthen Zika virus and birth-defect surveillance; enhance vector surveillance and control; scale up laboratory capacity; and amplify risk communication and community engagement. All countries now have the laboratory capacity to conduct Zika virus testing, as well as to assess and identify microcephaly cases, the agency said.
In addition to official efforts, WHO has also been urging householders and community groups to be on the frontlines of mosquito control.
A rare tropical disease – the Zika virus - is spreading rapidly in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Controlling mosquito populations is crucial to diminishing Zika virus transmission, as well as the transmission of other vector-borne diseases such as dengue and chikungunya. Alongside government efforts, householders are encouraged to disrupt standing water that can gather in gutters, pot plants and spare or discarded tires, and to dispose of household waste in sealed plastic bags,” Dr. Khetrapal Singh said.
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-coloured clothing; using mosquito repellent; sleeping under a bed net; and fitting windows and doors with screens wherever possible.
Based on available evidence, WHO does not recommend trade or travel restrictions with countries, areas and/or territories with Zika virus transmission. Travelers to areas with Zika virus outbreaks should seek up-to-date advice on potential risks and appropriate measures to reduce the possibility of exposure to mosquito bites and sexual transmission of Zika, the agency said.
Further, WHO stressed that pregnant women should be advised not to travel to areas with an ongoing Zika virus outbreak. Pregnant women’s sexual partners living in or returning from areas with Zika virus outbreaks should ensure safer sex or abstain from sex for the duration of their partner’s pregnancy. For regions with active transmission of Zika virus, WHO recommends correct counselling and that women be offered a full range of contraceptive methods to enable informed choice regarding whether and when to become pregnant. WHO recommends safer sex or abstinence for a period of six months for men and women who are returning from areas of active transmission, regardless of whether they are trying to conceive.
Earlier this month, WHO said that the infectious disease, and its associated congenital and other neurological disorders, continues to be an international public health emergency due to continuing geographic expansion and considerable gaps in understanding of the virus and its consequences.