Singapore cannot rule out the possibility of the Zika virus making its way here, Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor said yesterday, as cases have been reported in neighbouring countries.
Dr Khor, who is also Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, added that the virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is very common here and also transmits dengue.
"Singapore would be vulnerable to the potential import of the Zika virus, simply because Singaporeans travel a lot to the region and, of course, there are tourists here," she said.
Apart from the outbreaks in South America and the Caribbean, small numbers of cases have been detected in East Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand, she said.
The Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947. Infections have generally been considered mild, with many of those who have the virus not showing any symptoms.
However, the virus has recently been associated with brain malformation in foetuses and infants of infected mothers in Brazil, sparking widespread concern. The link, however, has not yet been conclusively proven.
Infectious diseases physician Leong Hoe Nam said the symptoms of dengue and Zika infections are broadly similar. But Zika infections tend to be milder, with less severe muscle aches and back pains than those usually associated with dengue, he told The Straits Times. In addition, Zika patients tend to develop conjunctivitis, more commonly known as red eye.
Dr Leong added that up to nine in 10 people infected with Zika may not show symptoms at all.
Yesterday, Dr Khor said that while there have been no reported cases of Zika here yet, Singaporeans should remain vigilant.
"There could be undetected cases, since the symptoms exhibited by infected persons could be mild, or some may not even exhibit (them)," she said.
Dr Khor was speaking on the sidelines of a visit to two plant nurseries along Thomson Road, during which she reminded shoppers to keep up the fight against dengue during the upcoming Chinese New Year.
Dengue numbers have been unusually high this year, with 136 active clusters as of last Friday, compared with 120 the week before.
This is attributable to a change in the prevailing strain of dengue, as well as the warmer weather in recent months, which facilitates mosquito breeding. While the predominant dengue strain for the past two years was Den-1, around two-thirds of all dengue cases now belong to the Den-2 serotype.
Yesterday, the National Environment Agency (NEA) and Health Ministry (MOH) released a joint statement on this year's first dengue death. The 47-year-old man had lived in Marsiling Rise in an active dengue cluster. He was admitted to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital last Thursday, and died the next day.
The authorities said that steps to kill adult mosquitoes and destroy breeding spots have been in place in the area since Jan 5.
In the light of the expected spike in dengue cases this year, they said: "There is an urgent need to keep the mosquito population under control.
"Residents are urged to cooperate fully and allow NEA officers to inspect their premises for mosquito breeding and to spray insecticide to kill any infective mosquitoes."
In a separate statement on the Zika virus, the MOH advised people, especially those who are pregnant, to protect themselves from mosquito bites when travelling to countries with local transmission. They should wear clothing that covers the body and limbs, apply insect repellent, and sleep under mosquito nets or in rooms with wire-mesh screens.
Correction note: An earlier version of this article said that the first dengue death of 2016 was a man who lived in Marsiling Road, when he actually lived in Marsiling Rise. It has now been corrected.