Japan to step up screening for Zika virus

Kyodo, AP

The health ministry is set to designate the mosquito-borne Zika virus as a disease that requires reporting to doctors, after the World Health Organization declared the virus an international public health emergency.

The government met Tuesday night to discuss its response to the matter.

Besides requiring reporting, the health ministry will step up screening and other protections at quarantine stations for incoming travelers.

While the Zika virus usually causes mild symptoms such as headache, mild fever and aching joints, it is suspected in pregnant women to be the cause of abnormally small head sizes in babies, a condition called microcephaly.

“We urge people, particularly pregnant women, to refrain from visiting sites where the disease has spread,” health minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki said.

He added that the government will swiftly designate the disease under the law on prevention of infectious diseases and set up special inspection systems.

The government has already started warning people to be aware of the risk and to guard against the virus, through fliers and posters at airport quarantine stations. The government is urging people who need to travel to Latin America to wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers, and to use insect repellents.

Officials are using thermography to monitor the body temperatures of travelers arriving from destinations in Latin America and elsewhere, and are urging people who feel sick to report their illness to officials.

The government is planning to revise Cabinet and ministerial ordinances to enable quarantine stations to conduct virus screening. It will also distribute reagents to all 47 prefectures to allow more facilities to test for the Zika virus.

So far, no Zika virus infections in Japan have been reported, but three people — a man and a woman who stayed on the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora in 2013 and another man who visited the Thai resort island of Koh Samui in 2014 — were diagnosed with the disease after their return to Japan.

By obtaining information from all the patients, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry plans to strengthen its surveillance and take countermeasures such as exterminating mosquitoes, officials said.

According to the World Health Organization, the Zika virus outbreak has been reported in more than 20 countries and regions in the Americas, in particular Brazil, since last year.

On Tuesday, France-based drugmaker Sanofi Pasteur said it is launching efforts to research and develop a vaccine to prevent the Zika virus.

There is no treatment or vaccine for the virus so far.