Thailand mulls free Zika tests

The threat of microcephaly is worrying pregnant women in Asean. Source: YouTube

The Thai authorities are considering testing all pregnant women for the Zika virus, following confirmation last week of microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size, linked to the tropical disease. 

The two confirmed cases of microcephaly were the first in Asean to linked to mosquito-borne Zika, which has been spreading in the region after outbreaks in Brazil.

“The health minister has asked us to study whether this is necessary and cost-effective,” Thailand’s Ministry of Health permanent secretary Sophon Mekthon told the media, referring to free tests for all pregnant women.

A Zika test costs about 2,000 baht (US$58) but repeat tests were frequently required, Sophon said.

“At the moment, we check pregnant women in Zika-affected areas only, not all pregnant women. So far, we’ve tested about 1,000 pregnant women,” the official said.

Zika infections in pregnancy have caused microcephaly, a birth defect in which the head and brain are undersized along with other brain abnormalities.

The connection between Zika and microcephaly was first identified in Brazil in 2015, which has since confirmed more than 1,800 microcephaly cases.

The Thai authorities said there had been 392 Zika cases since January, including 39 pregnant women, while Singapore said it had 393 Zika cases, including 16 pregnant women.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says citizens should consider postponing travel to Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Philippines, Thailand, East Timor, and Vietnam.

It has issued a “travel notice” for Singapore.

The World Health Organisation said people should work to control mosquitoes, which transmit Zika, dengue, chikungunya and malaria.

There is no vaccine or treatment and around 80 per cent of people infected with Zika carry no symptoms, making it difficult for pregnant women to identify if they have been infected.

Sexual transmission of Zika has also been reported.

Zika testing is free in Singapore for pregnant women with symptoms or with partners who are Zika-positive. Pregnant women without symptoms can receive a subsidised test.

Tourism-dependent Thailand has been accused of playing down the Zika risk, which is denied by the government.

Health experts say the real number of cases in Thailand is bound to be higher than the confirmed figure.

The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia have all reported Zika cases. In adults, Zika has also been linked to a neurological syndrome, known as Guillain-Barre, as well as other neurological illnesses.