Australian Federal Police officers have contracted Zika virus in Pacific

Several Australian Federal Police officers have contracted Zika virus – the subject of a global health emergency – while on deployment overseas including in the Solomon Islands to Australia's north.

A spokeswoman for the force told Fairfax Media that the cases had happened before this year. The officers were treated and do not appear to be showing any lasting effects of the mosquito-borne virus, which is currently the subject of a World Health Organisation-declared emergency after being linked to birth defects.

But the revelations underscore the proximity of the virus to Australia and the risk it has posed to Australians. The AFP currently has 80 officers deployed to the Solomons, including 14 women, as part of a regional assistance mission.

"In previous years, there has been a small number of AFP members deployed overseas who have been diagnosed with the Zika virus," the spokeswoman said.

"Diagnosed members were treated in line with treatment recommended by the Australian Department of Health, which includes rest, increasing fluids and continued monitoring of symptoms.

"The AFP is not aware of any lasting side effects experienced by the members concerned, but has appropriate support structures in place if required."

The AFP refused on privacy grounds to give specific information about when the infections happened, in which countries, and whether they affected men or women. It is understood the number is in the single figures.

The force issued a warning and information pack to all overseas members last month on the Zika virus. Routine testing for Zika and other viruses has been available "for a number of years", the spokeswoman said.

Zika is related to dengue and yellow fever and is transmitted by the same genus of mosquito. It causes only mild symptoms for most people but the recent explosion of cases in South and Central America and a corresponding apparent spike in birth defects in Brazil prompted the WHO to declare a ‘ public health emergency of international concern.’

Seven countries – including French Polynesia – have reported an increase in microcephaly, or babies being born with small heads, or a nerve disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome, coinciding with an outbreak of Zika. But the precise links remain unproven.

The Solomons has in the past reported Zika cases and is one of the countries of concern in Australia's near region, but is not currently on the list of countries regarded by the Health or the Foreign Affairs Departments as having "ongoing transmission". Only Tonga and Samoa fall into that category.

The AFP has at times had more than 200 officers on the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, which Australian joined in 2003. It currently has fewer than 10 officers in total in South and Central America, the Caribbean, Samoa and Tonga.

The Australian Defence Force has also had significant numbers of personnel stationed in the Solomons, but says no personnel are known to have contracted Zika. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also reported no known cases among its officials.

The Turnbull government this week announced it would spend up to $500,000 helping the Pacific region battle the virus but said it would focus on Tonga.


Sydney Morning Herald