Southeast Asia Has All The Right Ingredients For A Zika Outbreak — And A Possible Secret Weapon : Goats and Soda Southeast Asia has all the right ingredients for a massive outbreak. But it also has a hidden advantage that could keep the virus from spreading.

Does Asia Have A Secret Weapon Against Zika?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We've watched a global health emergency unfold over the past year. An outbreak of the mysterious Zika virus began in Brazil. Since then, it's spread throughout the Western Hemisphere, and it's led to nearly 2,000 babies being born with extremely small heads and brain damage. Seventeen of them have been in the U.S. Health officials worry the same thing is happening on the other side of the world, too. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, health experts sat down at Georgetown University to talk about Zika. You might expect the focus would be on Florida where Zika has infected at least 56 people. But right off the bat, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health brought up another place with a Zika outbreak.

ANTHONY FAUCI: And I'm watching Singapore very, very carefully 'cause if you look at the numbers in Singapore, it went from a handful to, like, 50 to 80 and now there's well over a hundred cases.

DOUCLEFF: Make that more than 300 cases. Over the past few weeks, the virus has spread rapidly in Singapore. And the concern is that the outbreak could trigger an epidemic in Southeast Asia.

FAUCI: They're starting to have a situation in Singapore which is really quite worrying.

DOUCLEFF: Fauci says Southeast Asia has all the right ingredients for a massive Zika outbreak. There are more than 600 million people, many are packed into densely populated cities and just like Latin America, they have a climate that's perfect for mosquitoes that transmit Zika.

FAUCI: We know how difficult it is when you have a climate that is a semi-tropical, moist climate. To get rid of the breeding places of mosquitoes is extremely problematic.

DOUCLEFF: So on the surface, it looks like Southeast Asia is a ticking time bomb on the brink of a public health crisis. But Jamal Sam at the University of Malaya says maybe not. He's a virologist in Malaysia. We talked over Skype. He says Southeast Asia has one big difference from Latin America, which could protect it from Zika.

JAMAL SAM: There's lots of evidence that Zika is already present in Southeast Asia.

DOUCLEFF: Yep, you heard him right. Zika could protect Asians from Zika. It sounds illogical but here's why. Zika was brand new to the Americas when it started here a few years ago. But scientists first detected Zika in Southeast Asia back in the 1960s. And the virus has already shown up across Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Malaysia. Jasper Chan is a microbiologist at The University of Hong Kong.

JASPER CHAN: I would say that a lot of scientists in the region agree that the Zika virus has probably been underestimated in many of these areas.

DOUCLEFF: So if Zika has been circulating in Southeast Asia for decades, why haven't we heard about all the problems it causes, the babies born with small heads, the neurological issues like Guillain-Barre? Chan says these problems could have been there all along, but no one was looking for them. The rate of birth defects is too small for anyone to notice. Brazil seems to be the exception to this and no one yet knows why.

But what this means for Southeast Asians is that Zika outbreaks could be limited to small clusters because University of Malaya's Jamal Sam says many people may already have been infected and are immune to Zika.

SAM: Probably once you get it, it's unlikely you'll get it again, probably.

DOUCLEFF: It's almost like people have been vaccinated, which means there will be fewer people in the population that will be susceptible. The problem is right now nobody knows how many Asians have been infected with Zika. That answer will determine if Zika erupts into a problem where millions of people are infected, as we've seen in Latin America, or if it just fizzles out. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

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