China has confirmed its first case of Zika, a 34-year-old man who traveled to Venezuela. Authorities are particularly concerned that the man stopped in Hong Kong before reaching his final destination, home to a mosquito species potentially capable of carrying the virus.
Reuters reports that the unidentified man is from eastern Jiangxi province but works in Guangdong, southern China, and took a connecting flight out of Hong Kong. The man had previously traveled to Venezuela, where the government has recorded some Zika cases, but significantly fewer than in neighboring Colombia and Brazil. The Colombian government has accused Venezuela’s socialist regime of hiding the true number of Zika cases and downplaying the threat.
The man is said to be recovering after experiencing the common fever, rash, and headache that accompany Zika in cases where patients feel symptoms. Up to 80 percent of those infected are asymptomatic.
Reuters notes that Hong Kong is responding to the potential of passengers carrying Zika with more thorough inspections at its airport and “reinforced training for boundary control inspectors.” Hong Kong is especially vulnerable to Zika, the region’s Centre for Health Protection notes, and other mosquito-borne illnesses like Dengue and Chikungunya because of the presence of a population of Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. While Aedes aegypti is the species known to spread Zika, Aedes albopictus has been known to transmit Dengue, and scientists suspect it, too, could carry the virus.
Chinese state news outlet Xinhua has quoted Chinese government officials as saying that the risk of a Zika outbreak similar to that in Latin America is “extremely low due to low temperature.” Aedes aegypti need warmth and humidity to reproduce. It is currently summer in most of South America, exacerbating the struggle to keep mosquito populations low. A World Health Organization (WHO) representative in China tells Reuters that the organization does expect Zika cases to arrive in China, however, because of “the volume of travel between China and South America.” “Chinese health authorities are well prepared to respond to this and any further imported cases,” the representative added.
That the first Chinese case of Zika comes from Venezuela highlights the threat the South American nation poses to the world should accusations of insufficient monitoring of the Zika virus be true. Venezuela has “no systematic reporting of the data” regarding the number of Zika cases, according to Colombian Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria. Venezuela has recorded 4,700 suspected Zika cases so far, compared to 20,000 across the border in Colombia, and over a million in Brazil.
“We already have a weakened health care system, which tends to make these problems spread more rapidly. Add to that the lack of information and it’s a perfect storm,” Jose Oletta, former Venezuela health minister, said of the Zika crisis. Venezuela is facing almost complete shortages of most common medications, forcing pharmacies to sell veterinary drugs to for human use. It relies heavily on Cuba’s doctor slave trade for its health infrastructure.
Asian countries have begun responding to the potential of the Zika pandemic in Latin America, as the National Institutes of Health has labeled it, by heightening security at airports. Many southern Asian countries share the tropical climates of Latin America, making them welcome homes for Zika-carrying mosquitos. Singapore, in particular, has invested in strengthening its security, as it is already struggling to reduce the number of cases of Dengue fever. “There is a high risk of subsequent local transmission, as the Aedes mosquito vector is present here. As such, the virus may become endemic in Singapore,” Singapore’s top health agency said last week. Singapore will implement new protective measures at its airports and begin an awareness campaign to prevent people from leaving pools of still water where mosquitos may reproduce.
So far, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand have all documented cases of Zika. The government of India, too, is very concerned with the possibility of Zika transmission, both due to its high mosquito population and how densely populated its cities are. “It would definitely be a big challenge for Asian countries to control the spread of the virus … considering high population in the region,” infectious disease specialist Om Shrivastav tells AFP.
While Zika typically causes mild, if any, symptoms in adults, doctors fear it is linked to an infant deformity known as microcephaly, in which a child is born with a skull too small for his or her brain. Experts are also looking at other, less obvious deformities in infants born to mothers who test positive for Zika. “Many have fairly severe central nervous system lesions,” Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease expert at Yale University, says, adding that many are born with a high number of calcium deposits that “cause seizures and cause impairment in terms of function for the brain.”