Zika virus and New Zealand

By now you might have heard of the Zika virus, which came from a pathogen unheard of just 12 months ago, but which is now spreading steadily through the sub/tropical latitudes. For the first time since the mid 2000’s when there were a flurry of virus scares such as H5N1 (Bird Flu) the World Health Organization is sounding a degree of alarm that means its risk assessments believe something capable of international disruption is occurring. But what is Zika and how much of a risk does it pose here in New Zealand?

Zika is a virus that is carried by the Aedes mosquito. It has its onset between 2-7 days after the Aedes mosquito has bitten you, and there is a 25% chance of developing symptoms that are related to the virus. Very few people appear likely to develop complications as a result of being bitten by a Zika bearing mosquito. However the worst effects are defects to the body in babies that can include small heads.

At this stage there has been one hospitalization and nine diagnosis of the virus in New Zealanders so far this year. Although the virus has been detected in New Zealanders on 67 different occasions since 2002, it is not thought to pose a major risk. Ministry of Health guidelines for pregnant women are to get tested, and for those wanting to become pregnant soon to consider delaying pregnancy for a few months if they are planning to travel to any country with known Zika infections.

It is possible given that numerous large international airlines fly in and out of New Zealand daily – Emirates and Singapore both fly in and out of Christchurch on a daily basis; numerous large carriers fly into and out of Auckland – that as the virus spreads more cases may unwittingly arrive in New Zealand. However, more likely is the arrival on regional carriers, which include Air Vanuatu, Virgin Blue and Fiji Airways. As these service countries that have poor or non-existential customs or biosecurity checks it would conceivable to get bitten by the mosquito, leave for New Zealand the following day and still have 24 hours before symptoms are likely to appear.

At this stage it is too early to tell whether Zika will cause a major scare like H5N1 did. And even if one does happen, it might be months before it becomes an issue here. As long as the current quite robust mosquito surveillance remains in place at the border, New Zealand is probably at little risk. Sometimes living in a country that consists of two moderate size islands and a host of smaller ones in the southwest Pacific, where the nearest large land mass is a minimum three hours flying time away has its advantages.



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