Australia, Pacific island countries on alert for Zika virus

Sydney, Feb 1 (IANS) Australia and Pacific island countries are on high alert for the mosquito-borne Zika virus that has been linked to severe birth defects, the media reported on Monday.

“There is great deal that remains unknown about the Zika virus, but the reports and suspected links to birth defects and neurological problems mean that this threat must be taken very seriously,” Xinhua news agency reported citing Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.

Australian authorities have implemented measures to check the spread of the virus through the Torres Strait with monitoring in the nation’s remote north already underway, Xinhua said.

“We’ll monitor closely through the Torres Strait. We already do that with a number of infectious diseases,” Queensland state health minister Cameron Dick said.

Dick said the Zika virus does not pose a significant health risk to Queensland “at this time … but we’re going to continue to monitor that”.

Zika carrying mosquitoes are endemic to tropical and sub-tropical environments.

There are currently no reported cases of Zika in Australia.

Though the World Health Organisation (WHO) is convening an emergency meeting in Geneva later in the day to determine its response to the spread of the virus, vaccine manufacturers have said a vaccine for wide-scale public use is months, if not years away.

Current efforts to combat Zika are focused on protecting people from being bitten and on eradicating mosquitoes, a tough task for many parts of the poverty stricken Pacific islands that have been saving water from the El Nino enforced drought, inadvertently providing a breeding ground for the disease spreading insect.

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