Parliament: Singapore's been prepared for Zika's arrival for 2 years; fight now focused on vector control

Thermal fogging being conducted along Sims Drive on Sept 4, 2016.
Thermal fogging being conducted along Sims Drive on Sept 4, 2016.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - The authorities here have been prepared for the past two years for Zika to arrive and spread, revealed Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Tuesday (Sept 13).

Mr Gan and Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli, the two ministers spearheading Singapore's efforts against Zika, gave Parliament a comprehensive update on the fight against the virus in separate ministerial statements.

A surveillance programme for Zika was put in place two years ago, with about 200 clinics islandwide collecting blood samples from patients with Zika-like symptoms.

Mr Gan said this testing was part of the Government's three-pronged Zika action plan: preparing for, responding to, and long-term management of an outbreak here.

He also addressed questions from people who wondered if the Health Ministry had held back information, when numbers jumped from a single case on Aug 27 to 41 the next day.

"In reality, the number of confirmed new Zika-positive patients, and I repeat new cases, increased only to five," he explained. The other 36 cases were previous cases which surfaced only because of back-tracking efforts.

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) asked if this look back exercise was "helpful in reducing the spread of Zika further".

Mr Gan said it let the authorities get "a sense of how wide the cluster was and how many patients were involved" very quickly, rather than to have to wait for further cases. Having that information also allowed the National Environment Agency (NEA) to focus its efforts where it mattered.

There has been 333 confirmed infections, including eight pregnant women, in seven clusters. Mr Gan said the focus has now shifted to vector control.

This has always been the key strategy, added Mr Masagos, and the way to do it effectively is to have "boots on the ground" to root out mosquito breeding sites.

Fogging has limited benefits since the chemical must have direct contact with the mosquito. It is only "helpful in the clusters because they have infected adult mosquitoes which must be destroyed before they bite and infect more people", he said.

Releasing Wolbachia-infected male mosquitoes so eggs from females they mate with do not hatch is also "not a silver bullet", he added.