Colombia has global relevance in Zika, microcephaly fight

BOGOTA The behavior of the Zika virus in Colombia will have global relevance, the country’s health minister said on Wednesday, as governments and world experts scramble to clarify the mosquito-borne disease’s connection to microcephaly, a serious birth defect.

Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria told Reuters in an interview the Andean country may revise downward its projection of Zika-linked microcephaly cases because the deformity should have manifested in fetuses by now.

Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether the virus actually causes microcephaly. Brazil is investigating the potential link between Zika infections and more than 4,400 suspected cases of the birth defect, a condition marked by abnormally small head size that can result in developmental problems.

In contrast to Brazil, Colombia has yet to register any cases of the birth defect connected to Zika, though thousands of pregnant women have the virus, Gaviria said.

“What’s happening in Colombia has global relevance because the virus is here, but also because we have a good epidemiological tracking system,” Gaviria said.

Colombia registered 31,555 cases of the virus in its latest epidemiological bulletin, 5,013 of whom are pregnant women.

The government originally predicted between 500 and 600 cases of Zika-linked microcephaly this year, five times more than normally registered annually, but is now reconsidering.

“We’re doubting that figure, we’re analyzing what’s happening in Brazil but between when we released the estimate and now we haven’t found a single case of microcephaly,” Gaviria said.

“The time to see some cases has passed,” he said. “The extrapolation of Brazil’s figures to Colombia, which is how we got the projection, now doesn’t seem reasonable.”

Brazil’s cases of microcephaly could be explained by previous underreporting or another factor not present in Colombia, Gaviria said, especially because the country has historically registered more cases than Brazil, though its population is one-fourth the size.

The Zika virus has also been linked to neurological disease Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis. The ministry expects around 60 cases of the syndrome monthly, an increase of 50 percent, Gaviria said.

Three deaths from Guillain-Barre have been linked to Zika in Colombia. One patient tested positive for the virus, while the other two were diagnosed by doctors but did not have their cases confirmed by a lab, he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sent a delegation to Colombia’s Caribbean coast, one of the virus’ hotspots.

Colombia expects up to 600,000 cases of Zika this year.

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta; editing by Helen Murphy and G Crosse)

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