By PUANGCHOMPOO PRASERT
THAILAND has reported its first two cases of Zika-infected babies with microcephaly, or babies born with abnormally small heads, as health authorities urge pregnant women to avoid mosquito bites and unprotected sex to prevent infection.
Meanwhile, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention added another 11 countries to its list where pregnant women should avoid non-essential travel. They include Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Philippines, Thailand, East Timor and Vietnam.
But Dr Prasert Thongcharoen, an adviser to the Thai Department of Disease Control, said the global risk for Zika infection is similar, noting that the US now has Zika infections and microcephaly in almost every state.
In Thailand, a total of 349 Zika cases have been confirmed since January, including 32 pregnant women, while Singapore has recorded 393, including 16 pregnant women.
That Zika virus has existed in Southeast Asia for a long period but knowledge about the disease and its diagnosis remains limited. For instance, the link between Zika virus and microcephaly was only recently identified as a result of the spread of Zika virus in South America.
Prasert said it remains unclear how the two Thai babies born with microcephaly will develop, but there are some symptoms such as tense muscle and an inability to hear properly. However, he noted that not all Zika-infected pregnant women will have babies with small heads.
According to public health authorities, the first precaution to prevent Zika infection is to get rid of mosquitoes that carry the virus. Second, pregnant women are advised to protect themselves from mosquito bites. Third, they are advised to use condoms during sex because the virus can be transmitted via semen.
About 80 per cent of Zika infections have no symptoms making it difficult to detect the disease early.
Dr Thanaluk Palipat of the Department of Disease Control said a group of 32 pregnant women who live in infected areas had been recently closely monitored via urine tests. Of these, eight already gave birth to healthy babies.
He said there was a system in place to follow up on babies born with microcephaly.
Thanaluk, said Zika infections are not new for Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, and the latest statistics show that the situation remains under control.
The World Health Organisation has said that the Thai cases were the first Zika-linked microcephaly in Southeast Asia.
Thailand’s confirmation of Zika-linked microcephaly comes ahead of China’s week-long “Golden Week” holiday with Thailand expecting 220,000 Chinese visitors, up from 168,000 for the week in 2015, Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Yuthasak Supasorn told Reuters.