Don’t panic

Health officials offer assurances after babies born with microcephaly

Health officials here are advising Barbadians to remain calm after the country has recorded its first cases of microcephaly since the onset of the Zika virus.

Minutes after Minister of Health John Boyce announced Tuesday afternoon that doctors at the State-run Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) were investigating the cause of microcephaly in two babies born this week at the institution, Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Anton Best disclosed that the results would be known in a few weeks time.

Minister of Health John Boyce (left) in conversation with Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health Tennyson Springer during today’s news conference.
Minister of Health John Boyce (left) in conversation with Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health Tennyson Springer during today’s news conference.

Boyce told a hurriedly summoned news conference at his Culloden Road, St Michael office that Barbados recorded an average of two to three babies born with the congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development each year. However, this week’s cases were the first since the World Health Organization linked the mosquito-borne illness to the birth defect in babies.

Microcephaly is a birth defect in which a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains that might not have developed properly. “To date, there has been no increase in the number of newborns with microcephaly. Additionally, no children born to mothers who tested positive for Zika have been diagnosed with microcephaly,” Boyce told the media. He noted that pregnant women believed to have contracted Zika, or those confirmed to have had the virus, were being monitored at the high-risk antenatal clinic at the QEH, but that these two cases were not among those being monitored.

“Currently, 14 pregnant women have been identified with the Zika virus. Of these, seven have given birth and there were no obvious birth defects detected in those babies,” the minister revealed.

“And at this point we cannot say that the two cases we have identified are definitively linked to Zika . . . and we won’t be able to say that for a few weeks until all of the investigations are done,” Acting Chief Medical Officer Best told the same news conference.

Best added that while the announcement of the two new cases could cause panic, he hoped the information emerging from the news conference would allay any fears.

Officials declined to release the identities of the two mothers at this stage, but promised to do so if it became necessary later. Consultant Neonatologist at the QEH Dr Gillian Birchwood, who was part of the team of experts joining Boyce at today’s news conference, spoke of the condition of the babies and mothers. Dr Birchwood said that the parents were not taken by surprise because they had been having prenatal counselling, and that the babies were medically stable and did not require any special care.

However, the health experts sent out an important message to all expectant mothers. “We will encourage our pregnant ladies to take the necessary precautions, which means wearing long pants, preferably lightly coloured long pants, wearing long sleeve shirts and using insect repellants that contain DEET [acronym for the most common ingredient in insect repellants]. So we will reinforce those things,” Maternal and Foetal Medicine Specialist and Obstetrician Gynaecologist Dr Na Tisha Robinson advised.

Dr Robinson also emphasized that Zika could also be spread through sexual intercourse.

“We should also encourage that pregnant patients should use protection with their partners . . . . Even though they are already pregnant they should continue to use a barrier method,” she said.

The Ministry of Health announced last week that there were no confirmed Zika cases here in 12 weeks, but warned this could change with the start of the rainy season. At the time it also advised pregnant women and women of child-bearing age to be especially careful and to take the necessary precautions to prevent mosquito bites.

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