The government-run tertiary hospital in Malé has started testing patients with fever for the Zika virus as part of a programme to determine if the mosquito-borne disease is spreading in the Maldives.
Pregnant women who come in with a fever will also be tested under the Health Protection Agency’s surveillance programme, the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital said in a statement on Sunday.
If infected with the virus, they could be at risk of giving birth to babies with a deformation called microcephaly, which leads to abnormally small brains and heads.
An HPA official said it has not found any cases of microcephaly in the Maldives yet, but is seeking to identify if its incidence is increasing.
The testing for Zika began after the World Health Organisation warned of “possible endemic transmission” last week after two European tourists who visited the Maldives earlier this year tested positive for the virus.
The HPA said it has strengthened surveillance and preventive measures, including nationwide efforts to control mosquito breeding with fogging and eliminating breeding sites and the establishment of the IGMH’s laboratory testing facility.
Zika’s symptoms can include a rash, fever, body aches, and red eye that last for several days. There is currently no cure or vaccine for the virus and diagnostic testing is difficult.
It is spread by the same mosquito that also carries dengue and chikungunya virus and research has also shown that in rare cases Zika can be spread by a man to his sexual partners.
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. But the vast majority of people who catch Zika recover without exhibiting symptoms and realising they were infected.
While more than 1.5 million people in nearly 70 countries have been infected, the birth deformity and the syndrome have only been detected in 21 countries.
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 vital tourism sector. Many governments have advised pregnant women against travel to Zika-affected areas.