Revisiting Zika

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Remember the time when most Malaysians were oblivious to the fact that there was a disease called Zika?

Even though such a disease existed and was creating havoc in other regions, some of us were never really bothered because it did not involve us.

Then one fine day, to be specific sometime towards the end of 2016, news of Zika appearing in Malaysia made the headlines and everyone went berserk.

So whatever happened to the Zika virus? Let us refresh your minds about what Zika is, how it made its way into Malaysia, and if it still poses a threat.

#1. What is Zika?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Zika is a mosquito-borne flavivirus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in monkeys through a network that monitored yellow fever. It was later identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania.

Zika has been reported in many tropical and sub-tropical regions, where other Aedes mosquito-transmitted viruses also circulate including Dengue.

#2. So how did Zika enter Malaysia?

Contrary to popular belief that Zika only appeared in Malaysia in recent times, Zika and Malaysia have quite a long history.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information says Zika has been present in Malaysia for several decades. It also reported that the first isolation of Zika in Asia was from a pool of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes collected in Malaysia in 1966. Previous serological studies also suggested the presence of Zika in Malaysia before then.

However, a sudden surge in the number of Zika cases in 2016 to more than 200 cases in neighbouring country Singapore caused a justified panic among Malaysians.

Zika was declared a global health emergency in February 2016 by the World Health Organisation.

In September 2016, Malaysia’s first official Zika case was reported – a Malaysian woman tested positive for the infection after a visit to Singapore at that time. The woman from Taman Botanik in Klang, Selangor, was admitted to hospital after she experienced a fever and facial rash for a week after her return from the republic.

The first local infection was detected soon after, when a 61-year-old man from Kota Kinabalu tested positive for the disease.

The third confirmed Zika case was a 27-year-old pregnant woman from Johor Baru.

In December 2016, the number of Zika cases in Malaysia crept up to eight.

#3. How did Malaysians react?

Even though people were initially nonchalant about the disease, things took a different tune when the man who was locally infected with Zika passed away.

The man had no recent history of overseas travel at the time that he got infected. He also died of heart-related complications, but this did not stop people from thinking that he died of Zika.

Pregnant women worried about getting infected with Zika because the disease can cause birth defects called microcephaly, a rare condition where a baby is born with a small head and other severe brain abnormalities.

Due to that, many pregnant Malaysian women who were staying and working in Singapore flew back home.

Local pharmacies saw a surge in the sale of mosquito repellents and the demand for such products increased dramatically in wake of the disease.

The Health Ministry issued guidelines for people to protect themselves against Zika.

Among the guidelines issued to pregnant women include advice for them to postpone travel to 24 countries in the American region such as Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador and Venezuela where the Zika virus infection had been detected.

#4. Is Zika still around and poses a threat?

In February 2017, the pregnant mother who was infected with Zika gave birth to a healthy baby with normal head circumference.

At the same time, the Health Ministry confirmed that there was no documented cases of microcephaly associated with the Zika virus in Malaysia.

By November 2017, Zika was officially declared as a disease that is no longer a world public health emergency.

A Health Ministry official told makchic that there were no new cases of Zika reported throughout 2017.

However, WHO had said that the disease remains a challenge globally.

This just means that even though we do not read about new Zika cases and because it is no longer a threat, we should not let our guards down just yet.

This is especially true for couples trying to conceive or pregnant women.

Medical experts say there is still much to be learned about Zika, which seems to be the only virus of its type to cross the placental barrier and stunt the brain development of the fetus. What is extremely unusual about the virus is that it can also be spread through sexual contact.

Dr. Steven Lawrence, infectious disease specialist at Washington University, has said that after a wave of infection comes through, there are very few susceptible people left to infect in subsequent years.

“It may be once you weather the initial storm of the first year or two, then it becomes a less prominent problem in future years,” he said.

However, he cautions that people cannot write off the Zika threat yet. “It’s still a potential problem for people traveling. There is always the potential for changes in the virus. I don’t think the story is over.”

As Malaysia is one country where the Aedes mosquitoes thrive, it is always good to take extra precautions such as applying mosquito repellent cream before sleeping or even sleeping under mosquito nets.

T.K. is a former political journalist who left the media industry to join the corporate communications world after the arrival of her baby. Her schedule is no less packed now as she runs after her one-year-old daughter, so she loves spending downtime snuggled up with her family on the sofa, watching baby television together.

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