Zika inaction is deplorable
TWO weeks after ASEAN health ministers agreed to step up the sharing of information on the Zika virus, the most informed and credible data about ASEAN countries is from the other side of the world. Not only are Thailand’s Public Health Ministry and its counterparts doling out information like it was rationed, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has better, more credible advice. This disconcerting situation is unacceptable.
Late last week, the Thai health ministry confirmed Zika infections had caused microcephaly in two newborns. This tragic defect, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, is well known in the Americas, but is new to Southeast Asia. But as a consequence of an outbreak in Singapore, authorities promised to take control of information for the entire ASEAN region.
Two weeks ago, the 10 ASEAN ministers of health held a teleconference to address the Zika virus threat. Public Health Minister Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn claimed the ministers would “make monitoring and detection fast and accurate”. Since that session, grandiosely named the ASEAN Health Ministers’ Special Video Conference, no results have been evident.
Here is a dramatic example of expectations deflated. Immediately after the September 19 conference, Mr Piyasakol talked tough. He would order house owners to get rid of mosquito larvae. Any failures would bring “a maximum fine” on charges of allowing the spread of an infectious and dangerous disease. One awaits the order, followed quickly by the first harsh example.
There is currently neither a preventative vaccine nor any type of relief or cure for the Zika virus. The same is true of other diseases carried and transmitted by the aedes aegypti mosquito. Dengue is more deadly than the Zika virus, which usually causes a few days of discomfort to its victims. But the harm of Zika is that it passes from mother to child and causes deformities. An infected woman need not even be pregnant at the time of a Zika attack, since the virus will linger as a danger for months and possibly years. The virus may also cause the Guillain-Barre syndrome and other neurological conditions.
This is why the CDC last week declared the Zika virus as “endemic” throughout virtually all of ASEAN. It advised not just pregnant women, but almost all women of child-bearing age to “postpone nonessential travel” to Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam.
But the insidious Zika virus also involves males. Men with partners who are pregnant or considering pregnancy who travel to ASEAN “should talk to their medical provider on how to avoid sexual transmission of Zika infection to their partners”, said the CDC.
None of the above has been passed from this government to Thai citizens. Of course, the travel industry will not face this current truth. Visitors might actually value their own health and their children’s over a holiday in Thailand. Holding back all public disclosure of the CDC’s announcements certainly does not match the public promises by Dr Piyasakol and his ASEAN colleagues to share data and step up research.
The constant reaction of this government to withhold vital information has run in parallel with its refusal to consult the public on important matters. “Don’t panic” is not an acceptable response to the Zika outbreak and to the discovery of infections in newborn babies.
An anti-mosquito campaign, complete with widespread information campaigns, is overdue, as are Dr Piyasakol’s threatened heavy fines on those who refuse to cooperate. The government is not prepared for this public health threat, and needs the public’s help and support to fight it.
A city worker sprays with a fumigator to kill mosquitoes in an effort to control the Zika virus at a school in Bangkok on September 14.Thai health authorities have confirmed cases of microcephaly in two babies were caused by the Zika virus.