SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - South Korea's health authorities released a set of measures on Tuesday (Feb 2) to prevent a possible outbreak of the Zika virus, including a plan to ban blood donations from travellers returning from Zika-affected regions.
The announcement came just hours after the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated the virus and its suspected complications in newborns as an international health emergency.
In an emergency meeting chaired by Health Minister Chung Chin Youb in Seoul, the health authorities and medical professionals agreed to strengthen blood safety measures at all medical facilities nationwide, banning those who have travelled to Zika-affected countries from donating blood for at least 30 days upon their return to South Korea, as well as coming up with more efficient and scientific methods to control mosquitoes before the summer months arrive.
They also agreed to release guidelines for pregnant women, who are considered to be the most vulnerable to the virus, as soon as possible.
"Health authorities must be fully prepared to counter the Zika virus. That includes treating people infected with the virus when they enter the country and formulating a concerted response when temperatures rise and mosquitoes become active," Mr Chung stressed.
The minister vowed not to make the same kind of mistake that allowed the spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome last year. The respiratory disease that spread across the country from May to July infected 187 people and caused 38 deaths.
"Although the possibility of the Zika virus spreading in South Korea is very low - as no mosquitoes are active during the winter months - we will make sure we are fully prepared and equipped to deal with the virus should it spread in the country," Mr Chung said during the meeting.
"The focus of Seoul's attention will be to keep careful tabs on people coming in from abroad," the minister said.
The WHO on Monday issued a worldwide warning that the Zika virus - transmitted through an infected mosquito that causes mild symptoms such as fever - is a global public health emergency that requires a united response. The agency claimed the infection has been linked to cases of microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.
The specific warning - officially titled "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" - has been issued by the WHO only three times before, for the 2014 outbreak of Ebola, the 2009 pandemic of swine flu and the 2014 resurgence of polio after its near eradication.
When asked about the WHO's decision, Dr Jeong Eun Kyung, acting head of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), said the current situation was alarming worldwide, especially because there are no vaccines or rapid and reliable diagnostic tests available.
"Also, most people in newly affected countries are not immune to the particular virus," Dr Jeong said. "This means a very large number of people can be infected in a very short period of time."
The KCDC and medical experts explained that there is currently no possible way to prevent the virus from being transmitted to a foetus if the mother has been infected.
The only preventive action a pregnant woman can take is to protect herself from mosquito bites, such as by wearing long clothing and treating the clothes with insecticide.
The KCDC also strongly advised that pregnant women and those considering becoming pregnant may want to postpone travel to countries where Zika is circulating, including Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Barbados.
Dr Kwon Ja Young, an associate professor of gynecology at Yonsei University College of Medicine, said should a pregnant women be diagnosed with the virus, she should take an ultrasound test every three weeks throughout her entire pregnancy.
"The tests are purely for diagnostic purposes," she said. "There are currently no ways to treat infected fetuses. However, not all pregnant women who have been infected with the Zika virus give birth to babies with underdeveloped brains."
Although the risk of the Zika virus being transmitted through blood transfusion is low, the KCDC is banning those who have visited the Zika-affected countries - the list can be found at the KCDC website at www.cdc.go.kr - from donating blood for at least 30 days after their return to Korea.
The agency also advised travelers who visited Zika-affected countries to use condoms for 30 days after returning home.
"We believe the virus stays in the body for about two weeks," Dr Jeong from the KCDC said. "We advise travellers to take precautionary actions for at least 30 days upon their return."