A Wellington resident brought back an unwanted memento from a visit to Tonga at the end of last year – a “probable” case of the Zika virus.
The case, from which the patient made a full recovery, was revealed as health officials also confirmed 54 cases of tuberculosis, or TB, reported in the wider Wellington region in 2015 and 2016, two of which were fatal.
The Zika case was reported between October and December last year, less than a year after the virus was declared an international health emergency.
Medical officer of health Stephen Palmer said: “We know that this person is a New Zealand resident who travelled to Tonga and become unwell there.
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“The testing that was done back in New Zealand, some of the tests were partially positive, but not enough to confirm that it’s Zika.”
The person had “all the clinical features of Zika”, but there was a slight chance it may have been dengue fever or the chikungunya virus.
The TB cases tended to be brought into the country by “immigrant” communities, Palmer said.
“They would’ve caught tuberculosis at some stage and it would have reactivated after they moved to New Zealand.”
Of the 54 confirmed cases, 20 occurred in patients of Indian descent, while seven others identified as Filipino. In 42 of the cases, the patient was born overseas.
“It’s a chronic illness. You can catch it a number of years earlier and then it goes into a latent phase and then can reactivate again.”
TB is a bacterial infection which most commonly affects the lungs, but can also affect lymph nodes, bones, joints and kidneys.
It is also known to cause meningitis, and can be passed on to others in close contact with an infected person.
Regional Public Health pointed out that TB numbers were actually trending downwards, with the annual rate approximately half of what was seen in 2014.
There are about 300 cases of TB diagnosed in New Zealand each year, with night sweats, weight loss and prolonged coughing among the key symptoms.
“It can be fatal,” Palmer said. “It used to be quite a common illness in New Zealand before antibiotics, and they would put people in sanitoria. It was thought that fresh air actually helped cure it.”
TB is treated with a combination of antibiotics, which need to be taken for at least six months.
Zika causes mild flu-like symptoms, along with joint pain and a rash. In rare cases, it can trigger the auto-immune disease Guillain-Barre syndrome, which causes temporary paralysis.
It’s also believed to be responsible for several thousand suspected cases of microcephaly, or abnormally small heads, identified in Brazilian babies since October 2015.
Between January and July last year, there were 90 confirmed cases of Zika in New Zealand.
“There’s no specific treatment for Zika,” Palmer said. “It’s only treating the symptoms and no public health precautions would have been needed for this case.”
International Zika hotspots include Africa, southern Asia and the Pacific Islands.