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Cambodia at ‘high’ risk of Zika outbreak in 2017

Health officials collect mosquito larvae from a water container in Phnom Penh earlier this year during a monitoring program for the Zika virus. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP
Health officials collect mosquito larvae from a water container in Phnom Penh earlier this year during a monitoring program for the Zika virus. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Cambodia at ‘high’ risk of Zika outbreak in 2017

Amid reports of the emergence of the Zika virus in Myanmar and the discovery of the first birth defect believed linked to the virus in Vietnam, two researchers with Phnom Penh’s Pasteur Institute have concluded that Cambodia is at high risk of its own Zika outbreak in 2017.

The findings appeared to be corroborated by a recent WHO risk assessment for the region, which noted the possibility of “new outbreaks”.

The Kingdom saw seven Zika cases between 2007 and 2010, but no recent cases have been reported despite outbreaks in Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore, and reported cases in other Southeast Asian nations.

However, in a brief analysis on the Zika virus in Cambodia recently posted on the Pasteur Institute’s website, Dr Didier Fontenille and Dr Philippe Dussart concluded that next year could be ripe for an outbreak in Cambodia.

“The risk of Zika is negligible at the moment in Cambodia, but not in neighbouring countries,” the short analysis reads. “However, the risk of outbreak in Cambodia in 2017 appears high.”

The Zika virus is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, which can also transmit the dengue virus, the researchers point out. Dengue rates this year have skyrocketed thanks to a cyclical upswing in Aedes breeding.

The doctors also maintained that the virus had reappeared in Cambodia in 2015, though the WHO yesterday said it was unaware of any such case.

Neither Fontenille nor Dussart could be reached yesterday to offer greater detail on how they reached their conclusions. However, the WHO’s Western Pacific Region earlier this month conducted a Zika regional risk assessment that also concluded that it’s “highly likely” the region will continue to see Zika reports and possibly “new outbreaks”.

The finding was attributed to the distribution of the “competent vector” in the region – Aedes mosquitoes – and the frequency of travel to and from endemic and affected areas, as well as the fact that some populations lack immunity to the virus.

Ministry of Health spokesman Ly Sovann, also director of the ministry’s Department of Communicable Diseases, declined to comment on the assessments yesterday.

Sopha Chum, executive director of the NGO Health and Development Alliance, said Cambodia’s capacity to handle a Zika outbreak was “in question”. Many hospitals lack the capacity to even detect cases in order to prevent an outbreak, he added.

“How effective [the response] would be? I don’t know,” he said. “That’s my question.”

Vicky Houssiere, WHO communications officer in Cambodia, said she wasn’t able to comment on the conclusion reached by Fontenille and Dussart but noted that the WHO’s risk assessment did highlight “possibly new outbreaks”.

“This is the second-most affected region at the moment,” she said.

Officials in Cambodia are aware of the issue and are concerned, Houssiere added. “They are continuing their process to get prepared,” she said.

Officials earlier this year deployed thermal scanners at the airports and main border checkpoints, and provinces with a high mosquito density or close to the Thai border to fumigate to eliminate mosquitoes potentially carrying the virus.

Despite the Pasteur Institute’s missive alluding to dengue, and despite the number of reported dengue fever cases doubling during the first five months of the year, Rithea Leang, the national dengue control program manager, said he wasn’t aware of a study that pointed to “whether there is a correlation between dengue fever cases and Zika”.

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