Zika risk remains low in the UAE, scientists believe

The absence from the UAE of Aedes aegypti - the main mosquito species known to be transmitting the virus - augurs well for the country.

ABU DHABI // Despite the fact that the Zikva virus continues to spread, the risk to the population of the UAE remains very low, scientists said.

The absence from the UAE of Aedes aegypti – the main mosquito species known to be transmitting the virus – bodes well for this country, said Dr Oliver Brady, research fellow in mathematical modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“Without the mosquito, there is a very low chance of Zika being transmitted in the UAE,” said Dr Brady, who is one of the co-authors of a study published this month that evaluated the virus’s ability to spread.

Zika is mainly transmitted through mosquito bites, although it can be passed from a pregnant woman to her unborn child, through sex and by blood transfusion.

Discovered in 1947, Zika caused little concern until last year’s epidemic in Brazil, when a connection with microcephaly, a birth defect characterised by an abnormally small head, was established.

The virus spread through central and South America, reaching the United States.

Cape Verde registered cases earlier this year, and Singapore did so last month.

As the number of cases rose, efforts to study the virus became more intense.

Earlier this year, scientists confirmed that Aedes aegypti – also linked to yellow fever, dengue fever and chikungunya – was the main vector for Zika transmission.

The species is not present in the Middle East, with the exception of a few pockets in southern Saudi Arabia, said Dr Brady.

“There is a very rare chance that a traveller can spread the disease by sexual transmission but it is extremely unlikely to happen and you are very unlikely to see cases happening directly in the UAE,” he said.

The possibility of infected mosquitos finding their way on to UAE-bound aircraft was also slim as “it is very rare” to find live mosquitos carrying the virus.

“Mosquitos just do not survive for very long and they do not move very far either,” said Dr Brady.

“So it is unlikely that they could find their way on board a plane.”

Dr Craig Wilson, professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, expressed a similar opinion.

“Those particular types of mosquitos do not particularly like to go to airports, they like homes and they like water around homes,” he said. “Humans are the ones that are going to move it [the virus] around.”

But screening travellers is difficult, as more than 80 per cent of those infected with the virus do not develop any symptoms, said Dr Wilson.

This is one reason why Zika has spread so fast.

“The way it has been spreading is, unlike chikungunya or dengue, people are not sick so they do not restrict travel,” he said.

Dr Wilson, who is also director of the university’s Sparkman Centre for Global Health, said a good precaution may involve the screening of blood donors.

People returning from affected countries should be accepted as blood donors only after a period of several months, he said.

The main risk of Zika is for pregnant women, who are at risk of giving birth to children with severe birth defects, especially if they become infected within the first trimester of the pregnancy.

Pregnant women and those planning to get pregnant should avoid visiting affected countries, Dr Wilson said.

An Emirates Airline cabin crew member, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was not aware of any specific Zika procedures, but said that the airline followed international safety guidelines that demanded planes by sprayed with disinfecting chemicals before departing on flights to India, Australia and some African countries.

Officials from the Ministry of Health were not reached for comment.

newsdesk@thenational.ae

Published: September 3, 2016 04:00 AM

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