HERE we stand, a nation with poor health behaviours, and the Zika epidemic that is coming (if not already here) will hit us hard based on the following realities.
1. The Zika virus is spread mainly by infected Aedes mosquitoes and also by sexual transmission. Aedes mosquitoes thrive in our country.
2. The virus is new to us, we are not immune to it, there is no definitive drug to treat it and any vaccine will take a few years to be developed and tested.
3. Most importantly, we have failed as a nation in our fight against dengue, a disease spread by the same mosquito that spreads Zika.
Dengue may kill, but if you recover you become well again. Zika will maim and cause significant disability especially to unborn children. And as we are still not immune to it, large numbers have the potential to be infected.
Imagine all our children who may become disabled as a result of this virus. The numbers from countries struggling with the Zika virus are frightening even to me as a medical consultant.
Current evidence suggests that between 15% and 20% of infected pregnant mothers will have a baby with brain damage especially in early pregnancy.
We may want to believe that we can prevent Zika from reaching Malaysia but that is a myth. Symptoms of the Zika virus disease are very common (fever, rash, headache, red eyes, etc.) and many people infected with Zika will have mild or no symptoms.
The best way to prevent Zika is to prevent mosquito bites. This means getting rid of Aedes mosquitoes.
The public will demand that the Health Ministry (MOH) take action on this, like they have for dengue. But Zika, like dengue, will not be controlled by the MOH alone. Controlling these diseases entails the involvement of every person in this country.
Vector-borne diseases require us either to avoid the vector (preventing mosquito bites is not easy) or removing the vector (preventing mosquito breeding, which is possible). But we are a dirty nation.
We like to believe it is a minority that throw rubbish while the majority are civic-minded. But the reality is that many Malaysians throw rubbish anywhere they like. Our cities are strewn with rubbish, the drains choked and even hospital compounds are littered by visitors.
We have a small window of opportunity to prevent an outbreak of the Zika virus here. We need to aggressively, actively and consistently keep our home compounds, neighbourhoods and cities clean. This includes construction sites, recreational areas, public amenities, etc.
We must empower our authorities to take action against those who do not do so.
Our politicians must not be allowed to interfere when compounds are issued to projects or development sites, government or private, that have been found to harbour mosquito breeding sites. Our city councils must really work, not claim to work. We must also work as communities to change our recalcitrant neighbours.
Some will say it cannot be done but this is not true. Singapore has been able to reduce its Aedes household/premises index (percentage of facilities breeding Aedes) from 50% in the 1970s (i.e. every other house) to 0.2% in 2013.
When our children get disabled as a result of Zika, let’s not blame others but ourselves as a nation.
Zika and dengue prevention are the responsibility of all Malaysians. We will win this fight as a nation united or not at all.
DATUK DR AMAR-SINGH HSS
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