News analysis

Testing for Zika virus of little benefit to most patients

Earlier this week, the Ministry of Health (MOH) stopped offering free Zika testing, except for symptomatic pregnant women and their husbands.

Instead, it extended Zika testing islandwide to anyone with the symptoms - with Singaporeans and permanent residents who opt for subsidised care paying $60 for the test, and private patients having to pay the full $150.

Not-for-profit organisation Transient Workers Count Too felt the subsidised rate should be extended to foreign workers.

It said the cost of the test is about 10 days' pay for these workers. Its treasurer, Mr Alex Au, argued: "By providing the subsidies to them, we can lower the probability that people will not want to go see a doctor."

This reflects some of the confusion people have about Zika and testing for the virus.

A foreign worker, or anyone else, who is sick with Zika and goes to see a doctor is treated for the symptoms, such as fever, rash, red eyes and joint or muscle pain.

Testing for the virus is not part of the treatment.

MOH offered free testing in the early days simply to determine if the virus had spread.

It also helps the National Environment Agency plan its mosquito eradication, so it can give priority to areas where Zika might be spreading.

It was offered free because there is really little benefit to the patient to find out that he has been infected with Zika.

Zika is generally a mild disease for the vast majority of people. In fact, four in five don't even feel sick after being infected.

The only ones who need to be concerned are pregnant women, and young couples planning to start a family.

Pregnant women face the risk that an infection in the early part of pregnancy could damage their unborn babies. The most common effect is microcephaly, or an unusually small head which could lead to physical and mental retardation.

This is why Zika testing remains free for them. Should they be infected, the progress of their babies will be closely monitored.

The other group of people who could benefit from Zika testing are young couples planning to start a family.

This is because a woman who has been infected should wait at least two months, and a man six months, before they try to conceive. Otherwise, the virus might still be in them and be passed onto the baby, affecting its development.

They should go for testing only if they have Zika symptoms, since the current test is for people who have been infected within the past fortnight. It is possible to check up to a month after infection, but not beyond that period.

For everyone else, the test serves no real purpose where the patient is concerned.

There is, therefore, no need to worry about foreign workers being at a disadvantage just because they do not qualify for the subsidy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline 'Testing for virus of little benefit to most patients'. Print Edition | Subscribe