Brazil links Zika outbreak with dramatic increase in birth defects

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff discusses measures to combat the mosquito responsible for transmitting the Zika virus to humans, which is connected to cases of microcephaly in 16 Brazilian states. (Credit: Ricardo B. Labastier/JC Imagem/Estadao Conteudo.) (Agencia Estado via AP Images)

The Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease linked to a rare neurodevelopmental disorder, is spreading across Latin America; the country hardest hit, Brazil, has reported 1,761 instances of babies born with abnormally small brains.

The Zika virus is a little-known pathogen that until recently had not been seen outside of Africa and Asia. Since its arrival in South America this year, the virus has infected more than 84,000 people in Brazil. Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and usually causes relatively mild symptoms, including a fever and skin rashes. Many of those infected do not show symptoms at all.

But Zika has recently been linked to the upsurge in infants with microcephaly, a rare birth defect characterized by a small skull and underdeveloped brain. Children born with microcephaly will suffer from seizures and developmental difficulties that limit their intelligence and motor skills for life. The infant mortality rate for those diagnosed with the condition is high, and those that survive infancy will require constant care.

Previously, the condition had been attributed to radiation or drug use by the expectant mother, according to the Guardian. But Brazil’s ministry of health now acknowledges the link between the virus and microcephaly, and advises women in high-risk areas of the outbreak to avoid becoming pregnant. As of last month, the government officially declared the rise in microcephaly cases a public health emergency.

“Normally in a year you’d have maybe three or four cases,” Dr. Kleber Luz, an infection specialist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in the northern city of Natal, reported NPR. “In 24 hours when we asked around, there had been 11 in the city. And that was a shocking enough number that we realized something very serious was happening.”

This year’s 1,761 cases of microcephaly is in stark contrast to the mere 59 diagnoses in 2014. So far, more than 1 million people could have contracted the virus, which has been seen this year across the continent in Panama, Venezuela, El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Suriname, Colombia, and Paraguay. To many, the rapid spread of the Zika epidemic is an indication that the number of microcephaly cases will also continue to rise.

The spread of Zika virus worldwide. CDC http://www.cdc.gov/zika/

The spread of Zika virus worldwide. CDC http://www.cdc.gov/zika/

There is no vaccine or treatment for the little-studied virus, and the cause of the Zika outbreak has yet to be determined, according to a statement by the World Health Organization. But some suggest the rise in mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue and Zika may be due, in part, to climate change.

Because of the devastating drought that has been forcing Brazilians to ration their water, people have been storing their water on rooftops. These containers of water are often left uncovered, reported NPR, creating fertile breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

In the Brazilian state of Pernambucu, which BBC reports has around two thirds of the cases of microcephaly, authorities hope the state of emergency will allow them to more quickly recruit staff to conduct a large door-to-door public campaign. The campaign aims to educate citizens on ways to help stem the spread of the Zika virus, including proper ways to stockpile their water and methods to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

For now, controlling the rise in microcephaly means targeting the Zika virus and the mosquitoes that carry it. Although Zika has not yet spread to the U.S., cases have been reported in returning travelers. Those traveling to South America can protect themselves by using insect-repellent, wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and using screens to cover open doors and windows.

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About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based journalist covering health, inequality and human rights in Latin America and worldwide. As a second-generation immigrant from Greece, Lisa’s objective is to encourage awareness of global issues and cultures through her stories. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.