It is virtually impossible to comprehend the torture that women in countries with the Zika virus and who are pregnant or considering pregnancy –– and their partners –– are experiencing right now, with the many warnings about microcephaly and the heart-rending pictures out of Brazil of children afflicted with the disease.
The thought of bearing a child struck with conspicuous deformities, misshaped heads and brain disorders, and who might never walk or talk, must be harrowing and haunting. The realization that both child and parent face an uncertain future, struck with an ailment with no treatment, no cure and no clear prognosis must be alarming, daunting and disturbing.
It is indeed a horrible situation for any pregnant woman to confront in the second trimester –– doctors say the most severe cases can be detected with ultrasound scans, but usually only at about 24 weeks. It is equally horrifying if it is discovered after birth.
The fact that microcephaly has been associated with Zika is downright scary, and the travel advisories issued by the United States’ Centres For Disease Control And Prevention appear to have caused a certain degree of panic among Americans in very much the same way last year’s Ebola outbreak terrified people.
A recent Google consumer survey of 2,000 Americans conducted by the travel risk management firm On Call International found that 64 per cent of Americans, including men and women who are not pregnant, said they would cancel their travel to Zika-affected countries. Among female respondents the number was 69 per cent.
This presents a major headache for the tourism industry in these countries, about a dozen of which are in the Caribbean.
However, is this fair to Jamaica, which has reported one case –– a four-year-old child who began showing symptoms on January 17 after earlier returning from Texas in the United States.
Is it fair to Barbados, which has only three confirmed cases, all of whom have since recovered?
And amidst the hysteria is the fact that scientists have yet to find a link between Zika and microcephaly. Up to now they are only guessing because of a spike in the condition among babies in Brazil, which coincides with a rise in Zika cases there.
The World Health Organization, which today declared Zika an international public health emergency, has said that much remains unclear, including the precise nature
of any link between Zika and microcephaly.
And this cannot be ignored. Last Friday, medical director of the Barbados Fertility Clinic, Dr Juliet 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. The American clinical psychologist Dr Kathy Forti has also raised similar doubts, linking the rise in Brazil to the release of genetically engineered Aedes mosquitoes there and an announcement in late 2014 by the Brazilian minister of health that a new TDAP (tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis) vaccine would be mandatory for all expectant mothers starting in 2015.
We will not get involved in conspiracy theories, but both have raised very pertinent questions which we too must ponder.
Why have there been no increases in microcephaly linked to the virus outside Brazil? Why were there no such problems in the first carefully studied Zika outbreak
on Yap Island in Micronesia in 2007? Could Zika not be the problem? Or could it be Zika combined with other factors peculiar to Brazil?
It must be noted that Colombia, which has reported over 20,000 Zika cases, including 2,100 pregnant women, has not reported any increases in microcephaly. Therefore, while we not are suggesting that the concerns be ignored, we have a responsibility to seek answers to these questions and to present the facts.
According to a Reuters report, since October last year, 4,180 cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil, but only 270 have so far been confirmed, with just six so far linked by the government to Zika. The report states that of the rest, 3,448 are still being investigated through a long process involving clinical research, laboratory testing and monitoring of the infants’ development, and 462 were dismissed altogether.
From these figures, it would seem that the situation, while distressing for the affected families, is not as dire as it would seem.
This might explain why Brazil has not advised women to delay their planned pregnancies.
Honduran media have also reported that health officials there have said there was
no need to avoid pregnancy owing to the virus.
“While some countries began recommending the prevention of pregnancy because of the growth in cases of Zika, health authorities of Honduras claim that they cannot forbid a couple of conceiving a child,” the daily newspaper El Heraldo said, quoting the deputy minister of health as casting doubt on conclusions that Zika can cause microcephaly.
We commend health officials in Barbados for remaining calm. The Minister of Health has said Barbados will not do what countries like Colombia and Jamaica have done and advise women to delay their pregnancies. At least, not right now.
Decisions like this can be the difference between calm and panic, and right now we need to keep calm. We also need to intensify our efforts at eradicating the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Let’s not forget we went through this last year with chikungunya, and dengue is still among us.