Zika a limited but difficult fight

The devastating effect of the Zika virus, namely microcephaly (an extremely small head), will impact only pregnant women ("Just how worried should Singapore be about the Zika outbreak?"; yesterday).

Therefore, a large proportion of the population - men, and women outside child-bearing age - are not affected.

Based on birth statistics, it appears that in a year, about 38,000 pregnant women may be at risk. It is only in the first trimester that brain damage in the foetus is most likely to occur.

But the Zika virus is a very bad one for various reasons.

Diagnosis is difficult because currently, it requires the detection of viral DNA strands using the reverse transcriptase technique rather than the more common detection by antibodies.

This narrows the window for detection.

Most affected people have no symptoms, and asymptomatic patients are not tested.

Detection of microcephaly is not always easy and may be possible only after 24 weeks of pregnancy - the abortion limit in Singapore.

There is no treatment and abortion is the only alternative.

Some research has shown that there may be more than one type of mosquito that can spread the Zika virus. Besides the Aedes mosquito, the Culex mosquito, which has different flight patterns and is not easy to eradicate, can also spread the virus.

The only options open are to try to totally prevent pregnant women from getting bitten by mosquitoes, and to meticulously screen foetal head growth.

Hopefully, a vaccine can be manufactured soon, or new drugs like the anti-tapeworm drug can be found ("Anti-tapeworm drug found to block Zika in lab experiments"; yesterday).

The Government can help by allowing abortions to be extended to 28 weeks for Zika-affected microcephalic foetuses.

Even Catholic countries in South America have mentioned allowing abortion for this reason.  

Chew Shing Chai (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2016, with the headline 'Zika a limited but difficult fight'. Print Edition | Subscribe