While major government players are distracted by the three-ring circus otherwise known as national politics, the Zika virus has steadily and explosively spread throughout Southeast Asia, triggering travel alerts from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Already, there are 12 reported Zika cases in the Philippines, including that involving a pregnant woman in Iloilo. Those infected had no history of travel to any affected country prior to their illness, which meant that they must have acquired the virus through mosquito bites. “All of these confirmed cases presented with skin rashes with any one of the following: fever, muscle or joint pains, conjunctivitis without eye discharge, or redness of the eyes,” Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial said. Thankfully, “all have recovered from their mild illness,” she said.
Just as alarming is the sudden outbreak in the past week of almost 500 chikungunya cases in several barangays in Cavite. The illness with similar flu-like symptoms is caused by the bite of the same endemic mosquito, the Aedes aegypti, that also causes dengue or hemorrhagic fever.
When Zika first gained worldwide attention in 2015 for the pandemic that saw more than 4,000 infected in Brazil in 2015, the Department of Health lost no time in warning the public to take precautions against the virus that manifests itself as a mild case of flu, but which causes microcephaly in infants born to women infected during their pregnancy. Microcephaly results in markedly smaller heads and incomplete brain development among babies.
To monitor the local spread of Zika, 1,000 test kits were distributed in four hospitals, and DOH officials used the media to urge the public to keep their surroundings clean and dry, and to destroy possible breeding places of mosquitos. Thermal scanners were installed in airports to check the body temperature of incoming tourists, especially those from Zika-afflicted countries. As well, fogging operations were done in congested areas where the virus could thrive.
The proactive stance lasted until the crisis passed and the May elections ushered in a new administration. Now, with administration officials busily trying to stem the fallout from President Duterte’s war on drugs, the danger posed by the Zika virus is under the radar. What is being done to draw attention to it again? With even obsessively-clean Singapore reporting over 200 cases of Zika, and with countless overseas Filipino workers crossing Asian borders regularly to seek better jobs abroad, how soon before the virus becomes a health threat once more? Is the public, especially pregnant women, sufficiently informed on how to avoid becoming another Zika statistic?
In its warning to travelers, the CDC issued guidelines that locals would find helpful. It has cautioned pregnant women against traveling to countries where the Zika-causing mosquito is endemic, or at the very least to postpone their travel until after delivery. It also advised travelers to use a mosquito net if their room is not screened or air-conditioned. Using long-sleeved shirts and long pants, especially in school, can help guard against mosquito bites. Because the virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact and body fluids, couples who have traveled to places at risk for Zika must avoid sexual contact for eight weeks up to six months. Using condoms also helps.
With the rains leaving stagnant pools for the mosquito to breed, the DOH must again sound the alarm and use the media extensively to remind the public of the 4S of Zika prevention, the same precautions used to avoid dengue: Search and destroy (eliminating pockets of stagnant water), Self-protection (wearing appropriate clothes and using insect repellent), Seeking early consultation, and Selective use of fogging.
Like mosquito-borne viruses such as dengue, there is neither cure nor vaccine for Zika, only “supportive therapy” such as increased fluid intake and rest until the self-limiting disease abates. But these words of caution and how to minimize the risks of contracting the virus need repeating until they develop into habits. Perhaps top officials should take a break from their political perorations and take a hands-on approach to this national health concern. For a change, why not declare a war on Zika?
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