Singapore was hit by the first case of locally transmitted Zika virus infection, and already, the number of Zika cases climbed to the triple digits in a matter of days.
Still, Singapore’s strong and sweeping reaction to the advent of Zika has taken some by surprise.
The Zika virus is spread by the Aedes mosquito which breeds easily in Singapore, and the vast majority who get infected by Zika show no symptoms but can be infectious. This makes it difficult to put a lid on the spread of the disease.
Is Singapore overreacting?
Reaction on the ground has been polarised. Some are clearly worried, sending mosquito repellents and patches flying off the shelves.
Others, however, see it as a storm in a teacup, since the illness is essentially mild for the vast majority of people. It cannot be compared with the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, more than a decade ago, which was killing people.
This disease affects primarily pregnant women, whose babies are at the greatest risk. But four in five people infected with Zika do not get sick at all.
Those who argue that Zika matters little to the majority are essentially correct, though in rare cases it could cause the Guillain-Barre disease, where muscles weaken rapidly. It could take years to recover from this debilitating disease, and not all do.
But consider this…
More than 28,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents are pregnant at any one time. These numbers are not small. If Zika was rife in the community, many could get infected over their nine months of pregnancy.
Associate Professor Arijit Biswas, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at National University Hospital, said between 1 and 10 per cent of pregnant women infected with Zika have babies with birth defects, including brain damage.
Singapore had close to 38,000 local births last year. This means hundreds of babies could be affected each year if the virus takes strong root.
Yes, women can check on the growth of the foetus and abort if there are obvious signs the baby is severely affected.
But this is only possible if the discovery is made when the pregnancy is less than 24 weeks old – the legal limit for abortions.
Not only would this scenario put a dent in Singapore’s efforts to increase the number of babies born here, but it would also be a tragedy to all the families concerned.
Zika-related birth defects
A major birth defect associated with Zika is microcephaly, or an extremely small head. If the mother carries a child with this condition to term, it has only a 15 per cent chance of growing up normal.
But 85 per cent would suffer from varying levels of mental and physical retardation. Most will not live long, but might need a lot of care while alive.
So getting Zika could mean absolutely nothing, or it could have really tragic consequences.
The battle against Zika
There can be no let-up in the war against mosquito-borne diseases, including dengue which has infected more than 11,000 people and killed seven this year.
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 31 August 2016