Zika in Singapore - Comment

Zika in Singapore: As mum-to-be, time for more faith, less fear

A shop in Pasir Ris West Plaza displaying an advisory notice for pregnant mothers about Zika on Sept 3, 2016. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

When news of the first locally transmitted case of Zika emerged about a week ago, I was not worried.

It was one person living and working in Aljunied, about 13km away from my home in Upper Thomson.

But over the next few days, when the number of cases across the island jumped from one to 41, 82, 115 and then to 215 yesterday, I could not help but feel unsettled.

My husband and I are expecting our first child, a boy, in December, and I am in my sixth month of pregnancy.

Naturally, what came to our minds were the reports about the Zika virus ever since it appeared last year in Brazil, and how such infections during pregnancy have been linked to babies being born with an abnormally small brain and skull.

Being infected with Zika is mild for most people, but as a mum-to-be, I could not shake off the tragic images of young mothers holding their crying babies with small heads.

I did not think Singapore was immune to Zika, but I never imagined numbers of people infected to grow so fast in less than a week, and countries to be issuing advisories to avoid travelling to Singapore.

Out came the mosquito repellents - citronella-scented patches and bottles of lemon myrtle spray - as well as long-sleeved clothing and cardigans. Thankfully, my supervisors have spared me from having to visit any of the affected areas but there was a bit of a scare on Wednesday night when a colleague had a fever and was sent to Tan Tock Seng Hospital to be tested for Zika.

He was the first to be sent to Aljunied last Saturday for work, and had also been bitten by a mosquito in the office lobby the next day. He tested negative - much to everyone's relief - but the thoughts in my head kept running.

"Could the mosquito that bit him get the virus if he had it? What if the same mosquito had bitten me?"

The next night, it was reported that one infected person lived at Tagore Avenue, a five-minute drive from my place. It was then I knew I had to put a stop to these fears, which partly stem from the lack of knowledge about the virus itself.

Since last year, Zika and its devastating effects on unborn babies have dominated headlines around the world. What is less known is that although the virus has spread throughout Brazil, more than 90 per cent of microcephaly cases have been reported only in the country's north-east.

Although evidence suggests that Zika can cause microcephaly, scientists think that the pattern of cases hint that other environmental or biological factors could be at play. These include co-infections of Zika and other viruses, such as dengue and chikungunya, and a possible link to pesticide used to kill mosquito larvae.

Also, the risk for microcephaly ranges from 1 per cent to 13 per cent when the infection occurs in the first trimester of pregnancy, according to studies.

So what are the chances that my child will suffer this terrible affliction? Low, probably. Who is to say for sure, with the amount of mystery and uncertainty around this virus which does not have a vaccine yet? But a week has gone by, and I am more determined that this is the time for more faith and less fear.

I know couples who are putting their plans to have children on hold, but as Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC MP Sun Xueling, who is seven months pregnant, showed when she visited blocks in Punggol to hand out insect repellent and posters to residents, life must go on.

As my gynaecologist at our monthly check-up said yesterday: "We don't want to brush this (Zika) aside, but go out to the malls if you want, don't worry!"

So I will take all the extra precautions, close the windows, cover up more, avoid going to affected clusters, and yes - I will smell of citronella for a while.

But I recognise there is no point fretting about Zika - there is only so much I can do and no more.

Life will continue, work will go on over the next four months until our baby arrives. That's when our life will really change and I am looking forward to it.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline Zika in Singapore: As mum-to-be, time for more faith, less fear. Subscribe