Fighting the Zika threat
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Fighting the Zika threat

'The most dangerous animal in the world", declares a website focusing on science, is less than 1.5 centimetres tall on its back legs, and hums. The mosquito kills more than 600,000 healthy people a year; many experts put the toll at one million. These pests carry and transmit bacteria and viruses that sicken millions more. Malaria is the world's greatest killer disease. Dengue and chikungunya sicken tens of thousands in Thailand alone. And now, another mosquito-borne virus has arrived which is even more frightening.

The Zika virus was discovered 70 years ago, isolated in 1952, and spread out of Africa slowly. Prior to 2007, there were 14 known infections in Southeast Asia. Now, it is a worldwide threat. Last week, for the first time, health workers confirmed a case in Laos, the 41st country with a Zika patient. Last month, Thailand reported its latest among many victims, a 22-year-old man in the Northeast who recovered from a Zika infection.

Of the five top diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, Zika is actually the mildest. But unlike malaria, dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya, Zika carries a terrible side effect. Research is still under way, but it already is clear the Zika virus is responsible for birth defects. In South America and on the Pacific Islands, thousands of pregnant women who survived a Zika infection have given birth to profoundly damaged babies. The most common defect is microcephaly. This is a severely deformed brain of the newborn, physically evident by the abnormally small heads of the infants.

Because Zika infections are spreading rapidly, scientists are studying the link to damaged babies urgently. Last week, a joint US-Brazilian study showed a range of "grave outcomes" for babies born to Zika survivors. Newborn infants were observed and gestating babies of the pregnant women in the study group were studied by foetal ultrasound. Of these women, 29% had or are carrying babies with a wide range of problems. These included microcephaly but also blindness, infected placenta and stillbirths.

Until now, the Zika virus has been rare in Thailand. But the species of mosquito that carries it is widespread. The Aedes aegypti is behind all dengue and chikungunya infections. It is only a matter of time before this mosquito becomes a serious threat for Zika virus transmission. Experts and scientists at the top levels, including from the UN World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control are working on defeating the Zika virus. Like dengue, there is no preventative measure and no cure.

The only current and rational method for containing and battling Zika, then, is to fight the mosquitoes themselves. Like most of the world, Thailand once had a robust anti-mosquito campaign, to fight malaria. That ended some 50 years ago with an effective ban on the use of DDT. Since then, anti-mosquito campaigns have become disorganised or moribund. It is past time to revive them.

So-called fogging is carried out from time to time in some villages. But the best way to fight malaria, dengue, chikungunya and the new Zika threat is a widespread campaign of public education and pressure. Brazil is ground zero for Zika, but it is spreading fast, and already has recorded thousands of US cases.

The public should help. First and foremost, every home owner must get rid of standing water. Depriving mosquitoes of a breeding place is a vital step in preventing Zika.

It will also help to turn back other mosquito-borne killers. This is literally a fight for life, including by an unborn generation.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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