The Health Protection Agency revealed Friday night that two European tourists who visited the Maldives this year have tested positive for the Zika virus.
The virus infection was detected upon their return to their countries but was “possibly acquired in Maldives,” the HPA said in a press statement last night.
“The cases were linked to travels to Maldivian in February and June this year. Therefore, [the World Health Organisation] has classified Maldives as category 2, indicating possible endemic transmission in the country.”
The HPA said it was informed by the WHO about the cases on September 28 and 29.
The Zika virus is spread by the same mosquito that also carries dengue and chikungunya virus. Research has also shown that in rare cases Zika can be spread by a man to his sexual partners.
Some 1.5 million people in nearly 70 countries have been infected, according to WHO.
There is currently no cure or vaccine for the virus and diagnostic testing is difficult. Its symptoms can include a rash, fever, and red eye that last for several days.
Pregnant women who are infected with the virus are at risk of giving birth to babies with a deformation called microcephaly, which leads to abnormally small brains and heads. A small number of people infected with Zika are also at risk of developing the Guillain-Barré syndrome, a potentially serious condition that affects the nervous system.
HPA Director Dr Sheeza Ali told the press last night that the two infected tourists were a 53-year-old German who visited the Maldives in June and a Spanish tourist who visited in February.
A man from Finland who worked in the Maldives from January to June 2015 had also tested positive for Zika. The Finnish man stayed in an inhabited island for six months. The HPA has not disclosed the name of the island.
Dr Sheeza said Thailand is the only country in the region where microcephaly caused by Zika has been detected so far.
The announcement by Thailand’s health ministry last Friday prompted fears that it could affect the country’s tourism sector. Many governments have advised pregnant women against travel to Zika-affected areas.
The HPA meanwhile said the authorities strengthened surveillance and preventive measures in February after WHO declared an outbreak in Latin America a public health emergency of international concern.
The measures include “enhanced vector control programmes, development of a surveillance system, and the establishment of laboratory testing facility”.
None of the samples tested so far have been positive.
Nationwide efforts to control mosquito breeding with fogging and eliminating breeding sites are also ongoing.
Dr Ibrahim Afzal, the HPA’s epidemologist, said Zika-testing facilities have been set up in the government-run Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital. The HPA plans to take samples from suspected patients across the country for testing at the IGMH lab, he added.
HPA Medical Officer Fathmath Nazla noted that 80 percent of people who catch Zika recover without exhibiting symptoms or realising they were infected.
As the Maldives was recently certified free of Malaria and Filaria, which are both mosquito-borne diseases, the HPA expressed confidence of controlling the Zika virus as well and appealed for public support.