Australians should be 'alert not alarmed' over Zika

Australians should be 'alert not alarmed' over Zika

Australian authorities are calling for calm as the Zika virus continues to spread, with more than 30 countries and territories now affected.

Thousands of babies in Brazil born with abnormally small heads have been linked to the virus.

Authorities have confirmed that Zika has reached Australia, with New South Wales Health revealing two cases have been detected.

This is on top of the more than 20 cases reported since January 2014, all of which were contracted overseas.

Zika has been linked to birth defects, such as underdeveloped brains in newborn babies, or microcephaly.

More than 4,000 babies born in Brazil since October 2015 are believed to have been affected.

The Australian Red Cross has urged potential donors who have travelled to Zika-affected countries to wait at least 28 days before giving blood, following the same standards set for regions affected by dengue fever.

"Blood safety is paramount for the blood service, and while we're aware of the Zika virus, fortunately the current deferral periods that apply to donors who've visited these countries, still apply to those who have been to Zika-prone countries. We're confident that the deferral periods that we have in place for existing mosquito-borne viruses sufficiently cover the Zika virus."

Curtin University's Professor John Mackenzie says the symptoms of Zika can be easily mistaken for something else.

"The symptoms of Zika are so similar to many other diseases that to be able to distinguish it, such a mild disease, from anything else would be very difficult. I would suspect that in most instances unless they're more severe than normal, they wouldn't pick it up. We'd have to be more alert than we probably are at present, and when I say alert I mean, GPs, if they see people with a fever or something they should be more alert than they would normally. And if they do take a travel history and there's some evidence that they'd been in South America for instance then they might think of doing a test. I would suspect in many instances the person would just recover before even seeing a doctor."

The Aedes Aegypti mosquito is thought to be the primary transmitter of the virus, which thrives in hot and humid areas.

Professor Mackenzie says the entry points for Zika into Australia are few and far between.

"We do have occasional cases of mosquitos coming in on aircraft, it's not common and it's unlikely to come in that way, it's most likely to come in through some infected person. It really depends where the virus comes in too. If it comes in to Perth or Sydney or Melbourne the chances are very slim. Slight risk, but only very slight, if the virus came in in an infected person into Cairns where we have the Aegypti mosquito, then there's a slight chance that there could be transmission but it's not very high."

The World Health Organisation has declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency.

It has previously been criticised for reacting too slowly on the recent Ebola epidemic, in which more than 10,000 people died.

Australia's chief medical officer, Professor Chris Baggoley, has urged people not to overreact.

"When we hear of a virus that's new and that does something potentially scary, then people - I mean they rightly get concerned - but that's where I think it's really important with our friends and our colleagues in the media keep on looking at the evidence of harm and potential harm. I did hear the other day that someone likened this, because this might become a public health emergency of international concern, and they thought 'well what's the most recent one of those? Ebola. It must be like Ebola.' It is nothing like Ebola at all."

One person sure to remain calm, is tropical and infectious diseases expert, John Mackenzie.

"Honestly I don't think it will have any impact at all, if it should come in and there should be any cause for alarm, the only people who would be of real concern would be ladies who are pregnant, in their first trimester, but on other hand the risk is so minute that I really don't believe that there's anything for us to worry about."



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