Where Is the Zika Virus in Southeast Asia?

Laos becomes just the latest country to report a local transmission.

Where Is the Zika Virus in Southeast Asia?
Credit: Flickr/Arian Zwegers

Earlier this month, Laos became the latest country to report a local transmission of the Zika virus, joining neighbors Cambodia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia that have each reported at least one Zika-related case since 2010. Thailand has been the worst-hit amongst the lot so far, with nine cases reported since 2012.

The World Health Organization (WHO) believes that the Zika virus is more common in Southeast Asia that the sprinkling of cases reported in the region in the past several years. Southeast Asia’s growing urban centers, tropical climate, and often poor waste management are factors that increase the risk of a Zika epidemic. The region is also susceptible to bi-annual monsoon seasons that increase breeding sites for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also responsible for spreading dengue and chikungunya virus.

Since being detected in the 1950s, sporadic Zika cases have not attracted enough attention from medical researchers. It is worrying that little is known about Zika’s prevalence in Southeast Asia and the population’s immunity against it.

Governments in the region are taking no chances in their efforts to fight the disease. Countries like Singapore and Malaysia have stepped up a series of measures to curb the outbreak of an epidemic – including added detection measures, hospital and clinic management, and stringent quarantine rules – should the number of cases surge. Scientists from the region are also racing to put together a detection kit for the virus, with kits expected to be available from the end of March.

According to the WHO, there has so far been no link between Zika and microcephaly in Southeast Asia. Microcephaly is a birth defect associated with abnormal smallness of the head and incomplete brain development. The Zika virus first caught the world’s attention when thousands of cases reported in Brazil dating back to 2015 appeared to suggest a strong correlation with fetal brain deformities amongst the newborn children of infected pregnant women.

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For now, the WHO classifies Thailand and the Philippines as countries with “sporadic transmission” of the Zika virus, as opposed to most countries in South America and the Caribbean which have seen “increasing or widespread transmission.” Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cambodia have not made the list.

The Laos case confirms the widening of Zika’s prevalence in the region even if its spread is not yet as explosive as in South America. With the WHO’s attention focused on containing the Zika virus and avoiding another Ebola debacle, in Southeast Asia, the worry is not so much an undetected epidemic as it is regional states being ill-equipped to respond if an outbreak does occur.