One medical doctor here has questioned the purported link between the Zika virus and birth defects in Brazilian babies.
Health officials in Brazil have linked a rapid increase in microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads, to the Zika virus. Since October 2015, the country has reported 3,893 cases of microcephaly, more than 25 times higher than the annual average of 150 cases.
However, Medical Director of the Barbados Fertility Clinic Dr Juliet Skinner told Barbados TODAY that a number of factors needed to be considered before the two conditions could be linked.
In fact, Dr Skinner cast doubt on the theory that Zika was the cause, pointing to the introduction of a new vaccine for pregnant women two years ago.
“It is notable in Brazil the question that will always remain is, is there any other factor? One of the things for example that has also been noted is that Brazil initiated a new vaccine programme in 2014 on pregnant women, a vaccine called TDAP [Tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis].
“And I think there are a lot of questions still to be answered. Do we think that this is Zika, do we think that perhaps this is the vaccine that has been given to pregnant patients? Yes there’s a spike in the incidents of a congenital anomaly although it is still a very low rate of growth at 0.13 per cent . . . I think the hard thing in all of this is whether this is being understood,” Dr Skinner said.
The virus was first identified in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947 and had been present in African and Asian countries, including India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. There was an outbreak in 2007 on Yap Island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.
Dr Skinner stressed the absence of a link between the virus and microcephaly in those countries and wanted to know what had changed since it reached Brazil.
“When something suddenly seems as dramatic as it appears to, the question . . . there immediately would be, is this in fact the true cause or not, or indeed has something changed about Zika? Or were epidemics before simply not big enough to see that association because let’s face it, the risk of that actually happening, if we just take the Brazilian data that we have, a 0.13 per cent anomaly rate is a tiny anomaly rate. It’s not to be ignored,” she said.
The Barbados Fertility Centre provides fertility treatment services to women in the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Dr Skinner said that a number of clients have been seeking guidance from the Centre on how to protect themselves from the virus, while some overseas clients have postponed their treatment as a result of their concerns over Zika.
“We have had some patients who have said, ‘ok I’m actually going to defer when I was about to come, to come maybe a month or two further down with the knowledge that it will be further into the dry season and perhaps by then more information will be known.’”
Some Latin American countries and Jamaica have recommended that women delay pregnancy due to the risk posed to the unborn baby. However, Dr Skinner wondered whether this advice was suitable for every woman.
“For those patients that are actually now wishing to become pregnant, I think you could say that yes, avoid pregnancy. And that’s a very easy thing to brandish out. But I think we have to be aware that delayed child bearing has many consequences, not least of which may deviate fertility itself.
“And for women who are older or have reduced ovarian reserves for example, they really need to consider this position very carefully because a delay in pregnancy could certainly mean the difference between them getting pregnant or not,” she said.
So far Barbados has recorded three confirmed cases of the virus, which is spread by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, and another 27 samples have been sent to the Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) for testing.