Flagged as a ‘red-alert’ zone, Thailand has to get the word out and be frank in its assessments
When 21 more people were found infected with the Zika virus in downtown Bangkok this week, state and medical authorities were quick to downplay the news. They should not be so dismissive. This is far too serious an issue.
The confirmation raised concern among the public nevertheless that the virus appears to be constantly spreading further. And it added substantial weight to an earlier warning from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control that Thailand is a “red alert” country, a classification stemming from the increased number of cases and the scope of the virus’ spread.
Our own authorities are far less perturbed, insisting still that the situation is under control and noting that confirmed cases since Zika’s first appearance in 2012 average out to just five per year. From January through June this year, however, 97 people in 10 provinces were infected, and that number has now jumped again significantly, and with populous Bangkok joining the list of locales.
Zika is a top priority for the World Health Organisation, which regards it as an international public-health emergency, chiefly because it can lead to birth defects and cause neurological maladies in people of all ages. Thai authorities, on the other hand, dismiss its impact since it’s not proved deadly so far, and continue citing dengue fever as the greater domestic health threat.
When the latest cases were confirmed in Bangkok’s Sathorn business district this week, residents were urged to remain calm. To be sure, panic would only worsen the situation, but, at the same time, official efforts to contain Zika’s spread have been ineffective, almost certainly due to a dearth of public awareness about the hazard and the prevention.
Thailand has been criticised in the foreign media for being less than
transparent about the number of infections. The latest official update came in June. The speculation overseas is that the authorities fear full disclosure might affect tourism.
We can easily ignore complaints from abroad, but we certainly should not be ignoring the fact that the virus continues to spread here. It’s common to find people on the social media with little grasp of the details about Zika and its means of transmission, and people who don’t socialise online might be even more lacking in information.
Singapore has earned praised for its extensive anti-Zika campaign, threatening fines for any pots or puddles of stagnant water found in or around homes. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has simply asked citizens to avoid giving mosquitoes places to breed. No Thai authority has addressed the fact that the virus can be sexually transmitted, surely a crucial aspect of the issue. No leaflets have been distributed. No television advertising campaign has been mounted. No overt use is being made of the social networks.
It is aggravating that Thailand – identified by the European disease-control centre as a “red alert” nation, chastised for failing to update the caseload since June and yet experienced in curbing dengue – still hasn’t become serious about Zika. Granted, no one has died and there have been no reports of newborn babies showing signs of brain damage, but the peril presented by the virus is steadily increasing.
Any official claiming that information about the prevalence of Zika in this country is too “sensitive” to share, or might hamper tourism, is begging for trouble. Residents and tourists alike must be kept informed about the facts and the figures. The organisers of last month’s Olympics in Brazil, where a Zika epidemic lurks, dodged a bullet. Thailand shouldn’t be taking any risks.