NZ, Pacific Islands increase vigilance against Zika

NZ, Pacific Islands increase vigilance against Zika

The Government is under fire for its response to the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

Three days ago, a travel warning was posted for pregnant women thinking of going to the Pacific Islands.

The Opposition says the response was slow, but this afternoon the Prime Minister was downplaying the situation, saying the risks to Kiwis are small.

Mercedes Ackerman is 14 weeks' pregnant and was planning to travel to Niue in March. But now she's wondering whether it's worth the risk.

"It's quite scary to be honest," she says. "It's not something I'm willing to risk, so if there is an outbreak, or there is a travel warning, I just simply wouldn't go."

The virus, which is carried by mosquitoes, is in 22 countries and has been linked to brain defects in babies. But Samoa is the only Pacific nation listed as having a travel warning for the virus.

Labour's Annette King says the Ministry of Health has been slow to inform.

"They have not put up the latest information that other countries are showing, and I think that leaves New Zealanders in a position where they can't make sensible decisions about where they want to travel," she says.

"Considering the massive implications it can have on a baby's life, I'd expect more to be honest," says Ms Ackerman. "It's a pretty big one really, isn't it?"

But John Key says the Government's response has been adequate.

"We don't think the risks are really, really large risks," says Mr Key. "We don't think people shouldn't travel, but that they should just be cautious."

But if you're worried about the Zika virus appearing in New Zealand, a travel doctor has told 3 News that's unlikely. It's simply too cold for the mosquito to survive.

Vanuatu on Zika watch

Meanwhile in Vanuatu, health authorities are stepping up surveillance for cases of the virus.

It's small, shanty towns in Port Vila that cause the most concern for those fighting the spread of mosquito-borne illness.

Frederick Yakeula from Vanuatu's public heath team has been inspecting a labyrinth of corrugated iron buildings.

Breeding in stagnant water containers throughout the settlement is the Aedes larvae, which will eventually turn into the same type of mosquito that spreads the Zika virus.

"It's a very big risk for the community, this one," says Mr Yakeula.

Communities in Vanuatu rely on containers to collect rainwater, so even though it is potentially dangerous, no one wants the authorities to take them away.

Resident Tom Joel says the tanks are essential, as there is no central piped system for the community.

"We use [the water] for drinking, use for cooking our food in the community, and we wash our clothes," he says.

There was one confirmed case of Zika in Vanuatu last year, as there have been in many other places around the Pacific.

"Here in Vanuatu, a large outbreak in French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and currently in Samoa, we are seeing a small outbreak of Zika," says Dr Jacob Kool.

Dr Kool helped identity the first case of Zika on the tiny island of Yap in Micronesia in 2007. He now works in Port Vila, where he says health teams are preparing to increase awareness about the virus.

"Now it's becoming a concern," says Dr Kool. "We will be strengthening surveillance for Zika virus. There will be much better testing and reporting of cases of Zika."

He says any further suspected cases in Vanuatu will be sent overseas for testing.

"I think we should ramp up our surveillance and really try to do it for every single case."

In the meantime, he advises pregnant women to rethink their tropical holiday, especially in places in the Pacific where cases have been confirmed.

"If it was just a vacation, if it was my family, you need to think twice if you have to do that vacation now or whether you could wait a few months."

Health authorities are asking anyone with symptoms, including fever or redness in the eyes, to see a doctor.

As well as emptying water containers that could become breeding sites, they say people in vulnerable communities should use mosquito nets and insect repellent.

3 News