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Economy

Singapore's surge in Zika cases amplifies economic fears

SINGAPORE -- A spike in Zika virus infections is worrying Singapore. On top of 41 locally transmitted cases announced over the weekend, the health ministry has confirmed 15 more, bringing the total to 56. The country is heightening the alert level for more infections and the possible negative impact on a slowing economy.

The alarm bell was rung Saturday, when a Malaysian woman living here was confirmed as the first locally transmitted case. The only known case before then was found this May in a person who had returned from Brazil. The Ministry of Health moved swiftly to test 123 people who had recently displayed symptoms, confirming 41 as infected. Since the infected had not traveled to South America or other Zika-epidemic areas, the ministry concluded that there was local transmission of the virus. Fifteen more cases were announced Monday night.

"We expect to identify more positive cases," the health ministry said in a news release. Although the local infections are so far limited to the Aljunied area, in eastern Singapore, dormitories for foreign workers are located in other parts of the city-state.

The majority of those infected are foreigners working at the same construction site. Building sites in tropical Singapore often teem with mosquito-breeding puddles and have always been seen as hot spots for such mosquito-borne infections as dengue fever. Zika and dengue are transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, which are abundant in tropical and subtropical regions.

Among the 41 initially infected, 34 had fully recovered by the time of the announcement, according to the ministry. Zika can cause microcephaly in fetuses but otherwise has generally mild symptoms.

The Singaporean government is stepping up mosquito control measures, including insecticide fogging.

Singaporeans understand very well that controlling the mosquito-borne disease is no easy task. Despite various efforts led by the government, dengue fever infections this year have surpassed 10,900. Ahead of the year-end rainy season, there is concern that the full-year tally may surpass the 22,170 cases recorded in 2013. There is no quick remedy for dengue, and efforts to develop a vaccine have not shown notable results yet. Deaths due to dengue in the country, mostly seniors 67 and older, have numbered seven in 2016.

The region has reacted quickly to the Zika news in Singapore. Taiwan's Centers for Disease Control has raised its travel notice level for Singapore and advises that women who are or plan to become pregnant delay trips to the city-state. Malaysia has strengthened checks at the land border as well as key airports.

"With the Singapore economy already feeling the transmission effects of China's economic slowdown and the impact of lower oil prices on the marine and offshore engineering industry, the Zika outbreak poses a further downside risk to the near-term economic outlook," said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit.

The Zika news comes at a bad time for Singapore. Last week's smog condition due to forest fires in Indonesia has already raised concerns. Citing the example of 2003, when the SARS epidemic hit the economy, CIMB Private Banking economist Song Seng Wun said that "it is a risk."

"In the worst case, if Zika gets more serious and if it comes with haze, then tourism will be affected," Song said. With a high-profile Formula One auto race being held in the middle of the month, September is the most important month for international tourism in Singapore.

Song did add a note of optimism, saying it all boils down to whether people's confidence is affected. "As far as I see today, people's lives are going on as usual," he said.

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