Puerto Rico not disclosing Zika-related microcephaly statistics
SAN JUAN – Neither pediatricians who treat children with neurological disorders and congenital malformations caused by the Zika virus nor researchers know how many children have been born in Puerto Rico with such conditions since the an epidemic was decreed on the island.
“We don’t know why the Health Department has not provided these data to date. The confirmed Zika infection cases, yes,” Dr. José Cordero, director of University of Georgia’s Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department,said during an event titled, “Canvas for the Future: Conference to Reduce Zika.
“I myself don’t know, and that is one of the reasons why [former Health Secretary] Dr. [Johnny] Rullán has just indicated that the CDC [Centers for Disease Control]…data on congenital Zika in Puerto Rico are being reported together with the rest because [the Health Department] has not been providing these data,” he said.
The medical researcher noted that Puerto Rico is the only U.S. jurisdiction in which the number of microcephaly and other congenital malformation cases is not reported.
Cordero declined to comment on whether the reported numbers of children born with microcephaly are alarming, but reiterated that “what is truly alarming” is that the Health Department is not reporting the cases, and stressed that the number shouldn’t be the focus because the condition is only a “secondary element.”
The doctor emphasized that what must be talked about is the damage Zika can cause to a baby’s brain.
Cordero said the virus can greatly damage a baby’s brain, even if the head’s size is normal. He noted that studies in Brazil and Colombia have shown that about 30% of the children whose mothers had Zika at some point during pregnancy suffer from neurological damage or congenital malformations.
“The neurological problems we see are the functional effects of a virus that is killing brain cells,” Cordero said. “That’s why 30% of these babies have severe seizures, swallowing problems, and hearing problems in about 6% [of the cases].”
The epidemiologist recalled that Puerto Rico has a congenital-defects program funded by the CDC, to which cases of births with cleft lip or palate, spina bifida and Down syndrome, among others, should be reported. Neurological damage or congenital malformation from the Zika virus must be reported as well, he added.
The doctor stressed the importance of disclosing data so public policy that can effectively address the health problem can be established. He cited a CDC study that estimates that the cost of caring for children with neurological damage as a result of Zika is more than $1 million for the life of each child, which is similar to the cost of care and treatment for spina bifida.