22 Jan 2016

Warning of link between virus and malformed babies

8:13 am on 22 January 2016

A medical expert has warned that countries in the Pacific region should be on the alert over possible links between the zika virus and foetal malformation in babies.

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Photo: 123 RF

The warning from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community follows reports of an increased rate of microcephaly in newborn babies in Brazil.

In 2014, Brazil only had 200 babies born with seriously underdeveloped small heads and brains - a condition known as infant micro-encephalitis - but there were 3000 cases last year.

The disease has been linked to the zika virus, which is carried by mosquitoes.

Infections have been reported on some Pacific islands, though mutated babies have not yet been confirmed.

Much of the Pacific has been hit by zika, most notably French Polynesia two years ago.

A senior epidemiologist from the SPC's Public Health Surveillance network said eight countries across the Pacific had reported outbreaks of the virus since it first emerged in the region in the Federated States of Micronesia in 2007.

Dr Salanieta Saketa said the latest case, as recent as this week, was detected in Samoa.

"We have actually been in communication with countries who have reported cases of zika. None of them at this stage have confirmed any increase in number of babies born with malformations that may be related to zika but of course they are [still] looking in to the information and finding out if there have been any cases," said Dr Saketa.

French Polynesia's Ministry of Health confirmed there had been a higher than usual number of foetal cerebral malformations since the 2013-2014 outbreak.

The Ministry's Head of Surveillance, Dr Henri Pierre Mallet, estimated that more than half of the country's population may have contracted the virus during this time.

An investigation was being done by the ministry to determine whether cases of foetal malformation could be linked to the zika virus which may have been contracted by some mothers during pregnancy.

"We think around 18 pregnancies have been confirmed. We still are not sure that all women had been infected during their pregnancy but the main hypothesis is the zika virus. But we are dealing with the investigation and we are thinking about more epidemiologic studies to confirm that," said Dr Mallet.

A New Zealand Medical Officer from Auckland Regional Health agreed that there was a concern that foetal malformations such as microcephaly may be connected.

Denise Barnfather said there had been 42 reported cases of the zika virus in New Zealand since 2014, all of them were patients who had caught the virus while travelling in the Pacific.

"In 2014 we had 37 cases, no deaths, but all of these were imported from the Cook Islands. The other interesting thing about those cases is that they were in an older age group from ages 50-59 and mostly females. And then in 2015 we had only five cases. Four of those were from Samoa and one of those was from Vanuatu," she said.

Ms Barnfather said although there had been no confirmed cases of microcephaly or other foetal malformations linked to zika yet, people should be concerned while investigations were continuing.

The head of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Doctor Beth Bell, was warning pregnant women to put off travel to Zika affected regions.

"Zaikai virus is a new emerging virus in the Americas, it appears to have a particular ability to cause birth defects when the baby is born to a mother that was infected during pregnancy."

The America's Centre for Disease Control was recommending pregnant women who felt sick and had visited countries in which zika was present should be tested for the infection.

In Colombia, zika has infected more than 13,500 people but the health minister there said the number could rise to as many as 700,000.

- RNZI / BBC