Better safe than sorry: Hong Kong is right to act on Zika virus

City does not face an immediate threat from mosquito-borne viral infection but a global outbreak cannot be ruled out

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 11:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 11:30pm

Just after the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa, the world is facing a wider threat from the mosquito-borne viral infection Zika, which is now linked to thousands of children being born with underdeveloped brains after their mothers had been infected. Health experts say it is spreading “explosively” through Latin America, with up to four million people likely to be infected this year.

Stung by criticism that it could have acted faster against Ebola, the World Health Organisation has wasted no time in declaring Zika a global public health emergency, despite uncertainties about the causative link to birth defects. Even so Hong Kong acted first, declaring Zika a notifiable disease, banning travellers who visit the affected areas from donating blood and advising them to use condoms for sexual intercourse during the 28-day incubation period.

The disease can be spread through blood via mosquito bites and transfusions, and through intercourse. Decisive action now is justified. The symptoms of Zika are deceptively mild, but a worst-case scenario would be a human catastrophe. Global overreaction is better than taking the dreadful risk.

Hong Kong faces no threat from the species of mosquito responsible for spreading the virus in Latin America, but one commonly found in the city, the Aedes albopictus, could also carry the disease and spread it after biting an infected person. Apart from identifying and tracking infected people and advising pregnant women to avoid travel to affected areas, enhanced mosquito control and reinforced public education to take precautions against mosquito bites are all sensible measures.

The WHO declaration of an emergency will fast-track research and aid. Thankfully, the pharmaceutical industry has already begun work on antiviral drugs and vaccines. Biologists have also begun trials of genetically modified mosquitoes to prevent wild insects breeding. Hopefully, amid an all-out effort to rid the Rio region of the carrier mosquito, it will not be necessary to advise against travel to Brazil for the Olympic Games.