WHO declares Zika a global emergency as Southeast Asia braces for outbreak
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WHO declares Zika a global emergency as Southeast Asia braces for outbreak

COUNTRIES from Thailand to Singapore may see an outbreak of the Zika virus, even while they contend with a surge of dengue cases – an illness also spread by mosquitoes. Their worries are set to intensify after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global emergency over the ongoing Zika crisis.

The WHO announced Monday that the explosive spread of the Zika virus in the Americas is an “extraordinary event” that merits being declared an international emergency.

WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan made the formal announcement:

“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014 constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.”

The agency convened an emergency meeting of independent experts yesterday to assess the outbreak after noting a suspicious link between Zika’s arrival in Brazil last year and a surge in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads.

Although Chan said there was no definitive proof that the Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes, is responsible for the birth defects, she acknowledged that “the level of alarm is extremely high”.

The last such public health emergency was declared for the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people.

The WHO estimates there could be up to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year.

Zika is typically mild and seldom causes death, but shares symptoms with its vastly more fatal cousin – dengue – a common viral scourge in tropical Southeast Asia. They are both also spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. These facts make nations ordinarily ravaged by dengue particularly vulnerable to Zika as well.

In the recent past, Thailand has the most number of recorded Zika cases in Southeast Asia, said the Straits Times. It had seven cases between 2012 and 2014. In comparison, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Cambodia each recorded one case since 2010.

More recently, a 24-year-old Thai man was quarantined in Taiwan last month after testing positive for the virus. The episode prompted Taiwanese authorities to raise the travel notices for five ASEAN nations – Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines – and the Maldives.

Then today, Khaosod English reported that a second man was successfully treated for Zika at a Bangkok hospital. A hospital director said the man was admitted last month and confirmed his recovery.

Still, Thai health officials seem calm and confident that the risk of a Zika epidemic is low, citing the quality of its health care system and the size of the country.

Speaking to Reuters, the director-general of Thailand’s Disease Control Department, Amnuay Gajeena said, “Thailand is a medium-sized country with a good public health system and easy-to-access medical facilities.”

Just last Thursday, the country’s Health Minister Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn called for calm, emphasizing that the Zika had not turned epidemic in Thailand, reported Khaosod English.

In Malaysia, authorities sent out a health alert to all public and private facilities. The country’s health ministry said it was greatly concerned with the developing Zika crisis.

“Malaysia has Aedes mosquitoes to carry the disease and the mosquito density here is very high,” said the ministry’s Deputy Director-General Lokman Hakim Sulaiman, according to the New Straits Times.

Malaysia’s Health Minister S Subramaniam said today that his ministry will unveil a comprehensive set of guidelines to address the Zika issue following the WHO’s declaration, reported The Star.

Singapore is also in a state of vigilance. Two infectious disease experts asserted that the city-state is “extremely vulnerable” to the Zika virus. The country’s Ministry of Health previously said it was monitoring the Zika virus situation, and undertaking measures to prevent and contain the emergence of the virus in Singapore.

MOH has been closely monitoring the Zika virus situation, and will be introducing several measures with the National…

Posted by Ministry of Health, Singapore on Wednesday, January 27, 2016

All three countries – Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore – are currently experiencing a serious uptick in dengue cases, partly attributed to hot El Nino weather.

SEE ALSO: ‘Intense’ El Nino brings drought, dengue to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore

Additional reporting by the Associated Press