TODAY COLOMBIA – Colombia has confirmed the first three deaths of patients infected with the Zika virus who had contracted a seemingly related disease that attacks the nervous system and causes paralysis.
Alejandro Gaviria, the health minister, told the Guardian that another two deaths caused by the disease – known as Guillain-Barré syndrome – were still unconfirmed to be Zika-related.
Health officials in the country’s second city, Medellín, reported on Thursday that a man and a woman admitted from other areas died in the past week after presenting symptoms of Guillain-Barré, which include muscle weakness and paralysis. Another man died in late November. All three tested positive for the Zika virus.
Gaviria said Colombia has registered about 100 cases of GBS that are believed to be related to the Zika virus. Overall, Colombia has recorded more than 20,500 confirmed cases of Zika infection.
Guillain-Barré-related deaths are rare but Gaviria warned that recent cases of the disorder seen in Colombia have not responded to traditional treatments of immunoglobulin.
“Mortality is high,” Gaviria said in a phone interview a day after meeting with health ministers from around Latin America in Montevideo to address the crisis caused by the spread of Zika.
Zika virus by itself causes mild flu-like symptoms or no symptoms at all, but earlier this week the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency because of suspected links to a birth defect known as microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads.
Reported microcepahly cases spiked in Brazil which has the world’s highest number of people infected with Zika.
But Gaviria said that in Colombia, which has the second highest Zika patients, no cases of related microcephaly have been reported. “It’s sort of a mystery,” he said adding that either Colombia will start seeing microcephaly cases soon, or there are factors in Brazil that predispose patients to it that do not exist in Colombia.
The science journal Nature reported that researchers of birth defects in Latin America were questioning the real size of the apparent surge in the number of microcephaly in Brazilian children.
But Jorge Lopez-Camelo and Ieda Maria Orioli, from the Latin American Collaborative Study of Congenital Malformations (ECLAMC), suggested that the baseline may have been underestimated and that heightened awareness of the birth defect, because of the possible link with Zika, may have led to an increase in reported cases.
“We are only now beginning to understand the dimensions of Zika,” Gaviria said.
Colombia has said that if microcephaly is detected in foetuses, women can opt to abort. Under Colombian law, abortion is legal for women whose foetuses show a malformation that makes life unviable, if the pregnancy was a result of rape, or if the woman’s health is in danger.
Gaviria has argued that includes women’s mental health, which could be cited in the case of giving birth to a child with microcephaly.
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