Sleepy Singapore suburb turned into Zika battleground

Pest control staff fumigate the drainage at Macpherson neighbourhood housing estate in Singapore. (Roslan Rahman, AFP)
Pest control staff fumigate the drainage at Macpherson neighbourhood housing estate in Singapore. (Roslan Rahman, AFP)

Singapore - Homemaker Sulaiha Ngatiman hunkered indoors as the scent of mosquito repellent lingered in her second-storey flat.

The 30-year-old, who is seven months' pregnant with her fifth child, lives in Aljunied Crescent, a sleepy eastern suburb at the heart of Singapore's recent Zika outbreak and the scene of a war against the Aedes mosquito that carries the virus.

Downstairs, fog-like smoke billowed as pest control crews armed with thermal machines fumigated drainage canals and other potential mosquito breeding spots.

"I'm very concerned because I've read that a lot of the symptoms can't be seen," Sulaiha told AFP from her living room, where mini bottles of mosquito repellent lined a table. The smell of citronella - a natural mosquito repellent - hung heavy in the air.

"All a mother really wants is for your child to be healthy," added Sulaiha, who now limits her outdoor exposure.

Zika, which has been detected in 58 countries including hardest-hit Brazil, causes only mild symptoms for most people, such as fever and a rash.

But in pregnant women, it can cause microcephaly, a deformation in which babies are born with abnormally small brains and heads.

As of Tuesday Singapore had confirmed 82 locally transmitted cases of Zika infection.

The initial cases were reported at the weekend from the Aljunied area and since then, the neighbourhood has been in the spotlight.

Thermal fumigators

Environment agency inspectors armed with cans of insecticide and torchlights, as well as pest control teams, have become a daily sight.

On a visit by an AFP reporter on Wednesday afternoon, the whine of thermal fumigators joined the roar of jets from a nearby military air base in puncturing the stillness.

Local shopkeepers reported a surge in sales of mosquito repellent patches, sprays and devices.

"I've sold out all my mosquito coil but people keep asking to buy patches and other things which I don't have," storekeeper Haranachia Mansoor, 30, told AFP.

In spite of the increased infections, life was normal for a number of residents.

"Most of us living here are old people so there are not many pregnant people anyway," said resident Chew Ah Gek, 72.

"The government people come and check for mosquitoes all the time. There's no need to get worked up."

Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist at Singapore's Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said people are not panicking because they trust the government's mosquito extermination efforts.

"The safest place you can be in Singapore now is right smack in Aljunied, because you have so many checks and exterminations going on," he told AFP.

Sulaiha had a scare in 2009 while expecting her third child, when there was an outbreak of the H1N1 swine flu. Now no precaution is excessive.

"I'm going to the doctor for tests tomorrow just to be sure," she said.

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