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More Than 150 People Contract Zika In Singapore

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Zika virus has spread far from South America, where the current outbreak began. It's been found here in the United States and also in Southeast Asia. Singapore has confirmed more than 150 cases of Zika, including now a pregnant woman. The U.S. is one of a growing number of countries warning expectant mothers not to visit Singapore. Monica Miller reports.

MONICA MILLER, BYLINE: It's a humid, 90-degree day, but Belynda Sim-Mak looks like she's dressed for a different climate.

BELYNDA SIM-MAK: I don't usually wear a cardigan because Singapore is so hot. Usually dresses or something sleeveless, something airy. Even I am wearing ripped jeans and my husband says, oh, you know, it's ripped. It's got holes in it (laughter).

MILLER: The 38-year-old advertising executive is five months pregnant with her second child. She says with everything else that could go wrong with the pregnancy, a mosquito-borne virus was the last thing on her mind until a few days ago. But her doctor says that she does not need to take advantage of the free testing offered by the Health Department.

SIM-MAK: Unless you get a fever, you show the symptoms, then you go test. But otherwise, I don't think it's worth going into this whole panic mode and scaring yourself. And it just doesn't help.

MILLER: Zika infections that don't cause symptoms can still harm an unborn child. The cases are so low in Singapore, doctors aren't recommending yet routine screenings. Singapore officials only last weekend confirmed their first locally-transmitted case.

OOI ENG EONG: To me, it's just a matter of time when Zika would arrive on Singapore's shores.

MILLER: That's Ooi Eng Eong, the deputy director of the program in emerging infectious disease at Duke University National University of Singapore. He says the wealthy tropical island country nation with roughly 5 and half million people is used to dealing with mosquito-borne illnesses.

OOI: It's spread by the same mosquito as the one that spreads dengue virus and chikungunya. And that we have had endemic dengue, and we've had several epidemics of dengue and chikungunya.

MILLER: Professor Ooi says Zika poses a serious concern for the development of unborn children. But for everyone else, the virus is mild compared to, say, dengue fever, which can be fatal. Officials here say they've increased inspections and public outreach programs. They also launched a ground fogging operation in affected neighborhoods. Dr. Chee Jing Jye is an OBGYN who manages high-risk pregnancies. She says although the travel advisory singles out Singapore in Southeast Asia, pregnant women should be careful anywhere they travel in the tropics.

CHEE JING JYE: I think there's a lot of under-diagnosis and under-reporting in other countries.

MILLER: She points out that the Centers for Disease Control reports 1 out of 5 people with Zika have no symptoms. While some countries are telling pregnant women to avoid Singapore, what do you do if you already live here and are expecting a child? Belynda Sim-Mak, the advertising executive, says she has confidence in the government.

SIM-MAK: I feel, for a very small nation, that things could have been much worse. And so I'm kind of holding on to faith.

MILLER: For NPR News, I'm Monica Miller in Singapore.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story refers to Duke University National University of Singapore, which is incorrect; in fact, the institution is called Duke-NUS Medical School.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 5, 2016 at 10:00 PM MDT
This story refers to Duke University National University of Singapore, which is incorrect; in fact, the institution is called Duke-NUS Medical School.
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