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Zika fears hit Asia: Singapore instructs workers to apply bug repellent hourly, take vitamin C

Singapore authorities say they have identified 41 locally-transmitted cases of the Zika virus, mostly in foreign construction workers, and that more are expected. Natasha Howitt reports. (Video: Reuters)

Just days after Singapore health officials announced a cluster of Zika cases among a group of foreign workers, its Asian neighbors were aggressively stepping up preventive measures similar to ones they undertook for Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

Indonesia rolled out thermal scanners at its main airports and ports such as Batam, an island nearest to Singapore. Malaysia began health checks for buses entering Johor Bahru, a city that an estimated 200,000 people pass through during their commutes for work in Singapore.

South Korea, Taiwan and Australia issued travel advisories warning pregnant women and others about the situation in Singapore.

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Given Singapore’s position as a Southeast Asia travel hub, health officials say it’s likely, perhaps even inevitable, that travelers will inadvertently spread Zika elsewhere. While the subtropical region is used to dealing with mosquito-borne infectious diseases such as dengue and slower-developing illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, many countries’ surveillance systems are not set up to closely monitor pregnant women and their babies, the individuals who are most vulnerable to the pathogen. One of the tricky things about Zika is that most people who get it don’t have any symptoms, and by the time traditional tracking methods such as those in emergency rooms pick up on groups of patients with the virus, it has probably already spread throughout the population.

At the construction site where the Singapore cases were first seen, health authorities have set up a kind of informal quarantine. Work has been shut down, and those with Zika have been given their own rooms in a dormitory with “Wi-Fi and their three meals delivered to them,” according to a description in the Straits Times.

All workers are getting their temperature taken twice a day, the newspaper added, and they have to apply mosquito repellent each hour and wear two types of patches with repellent. They are also given vitamin C each day. It’s unclear how this will help combat Zika, but the belief that the supplements can help with a related illness — dengue fever — is common in Singapore, just as the idea that supplements can help with the common cold is in the United States. Medical studies haven’t been able to confirm a link for either. However, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. As long as you’re not consuming megadoses (which can be harmful), nutrition science says the supplement can help round out a diet lacking in citrus and other foods rich in the nutrient, ensuring that you’re getting enough to support normal growth and development.

The number of confirmed Zika cases in Singapore is 56. Most of those people have made a full recovery, but a handful remain hospitalized.

According to the latest situation report from the World Health Organization — a report issued Aug. 18 — 67 countries have reported evidence of mosquito-borne Zika virus since 2015. Seventeen of them have reported babies being born with microcephaly, or shrunken heads, or other central nervous system malformations linked to Zika. The most numerous and severe cases have been seen in Brazil where the link between Zika and microcephaly was first established.

Eighteen countries and territories have reported an increased in incidence of Guillain-Barré syndrome or have confirmed Zika infection in people with the potentially life-threatening disorder, in which the body’s immune system attacks nerves.

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