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Politics

Thailand on higher alert after Zika cases double in two months to 200

A city worker fumigates an area to control mosquitoes at a university in Bangkok on Sept. 13.

BANGKOK -- Thailand has confirmed that it has found at least 200 people infected by the Zika virus so far this year, the second-largest figure in Southeast Asia after Singapore, which has seen over 300 cases.

The Thai government had been reluctant to reveal the figure, in a possible attempt to protect its crucial tourism sector, which accounts for roughly 10% of the country's gross domestic product and is the only bright spot in the sluggish economy.

The latest tally as of Sept. 12 was more than double the Health Ministry's previous update more than two months ago, when it stood at 97.

At least 33 of the cases were pregnant women, of which eight have already given birth, Health Ministry spokesman Suwannachai Wattanayingcharoen told the Nikkei Asian Review. None of the babies have the characteristic symptom of small heads, but are being closely monitored.

The belated update came as the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration said over the weekend that more than 20 cases were recently found in the capital's central business district.

The department of disease control has raised the level of its surveillance and prevention measures by one notch to Level 2. All 12 regional offices of the department will be required to allocate at least 10% of their staff for Zika emergency operations. Level 4 is the maximum level.

Suwannachai insisted that the situation is under control. "Newly reported cases are steady at a weekly pace of 20," he said.

Thailand confirmed its first case of the mosquito-borne virus back in 2012, but has only seen an average of five cases annually until last year.

Nevertheless, Suwannachai explained that this is not a special outbreak for the tropical country, but a result of greater awareness.

"The recent spike is a result of more people coming to do blood or urine tests after the outbreak in Latin American countries," he said, noting that the increase over the last two months was mainly because of the rainy season, a time when mosquitoes are more active.

Since February, the health ministry has been asking provincial health offices to set up emergency operations centers to monitor the situation, especially in areas where infections were found. A public awareness campaign called "Clean up the house, garbage and water" has also been launched.

Although analysts say that it is too early to tell how the endemic disease could impact the economy, concerns for a wider spread of the virus comes at a crucial time for the country's tourism.

A series of explosions in popular resort areas, such as Phuket, in the central and southern parts of the country on Aug. 11 and 12 already threatened the industry, which is expecting a record 33 million foreign travelers this year.

Back in 2003, the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in the region hit Thai tourism with a 7% year-on-year decline of foreign arrivals.

Tourism Authority of Thailand Gov. Yuthasak Supasorn told reporters in early September that Zika will not have a severe impact. "I think Thailand is credible as a country. We are doing everything according to international procedures. We are not hiding anything, so I don't think it should raise any concern," he said.

Shortly after he made the comment, however, China, Thailand's biggest source of tourists, issued an alert to travelers to Zika-affected countries to try to avoid mosquito bites.

In late August, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency, put Thailand on alert for "widespread transmission" of Zika, the first to be labeled so in Southeast Asia.

Montes Rattayapas, an analyst at Capital Nomura Securities, however, points out that Zika is less to worry about in terms of tourism than other diseases such as the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), as it only affects pregnant woman. She said that hospital operators could benefit such as Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, the country's largest hospital operator, whose network includes facilities in rural areas.

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