All pregnant women with or without fever must be screened for Zika virus if they live in or have travelled to countries with localised infection, says the World Health Organisation.
Zika, a mosquito-borne virus, causes mild symptoms of fever, rash, conjunctivitis, fatigue and joint pain for two days to a week in most people, but pregnant women with the infection risk having babies with microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and brains.
“The threat of microcephaly makes it vital for all pregnant women to be screened for Zika in countries with local transmission,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director, WHO South East Asia.
In February, WHO declared Zika a global emergency after establishing its link with microcephaly in babies. Till September 163 countries have reported active transmission and 20 have confirmed cases of microcephaly and the Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can lead to nervous system problems, weakness and paralysis.
With 26 million babies born in India every year and 80% of people infected not developing symptoms, the risk is great for lakhs of pregnant women and their unborn babies. “The good news is that five pregnant women with Zika infection in Thailand have had healthy babies,” said Singh.
Thailand has confirmed 97 cases, and Indonesia five, including a pregnant woman. Singapore is the only country in Asia with active local transmission, with cases shooting up from zero to 242, raising concerns about a potential rapid surge across Asia.
Thirteen of those infected in Singapore are Indians.
Last week, a study published in The Lancet journal put several countries including India, Pakistan, China and Bangladesh in Asia at high risk of Zika based on an analysis of travel, climate and mosquito patterns.
“These are all countries with high density of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads Zika along with other infections such dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. To stop potential outbreaks, countries need high vector surveillance and case detection so that infection doesn't reach the community," said Singh.
Though mosquitoes are the main vector, Zika can also be spread through sexual contact and blood transfusions. There is no treatment or vaccine for Zika infection.