Caracas, Venezuela – The worst possible Zika-related fear became true for Gilibeth Rodriguez, one of 65 women in Venezuela who have given birth to brain-damaged children since April 2016 due to the virus.
The 65-count comes from information provided to Fox News Latino by the Venezuelan Society of Infectious Diseases, since the Ministry of Health has yet to release official data on the spread of Zika in the country.
Rodriguez is 31 years old and lives in Maracay, some 70 miles west of Caracas. Approximately a month after finding out she was pregnant, she came down with a fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis — all symptoms of the dreaded Zika, which first hit the crisis-stricken country in mid-2015.
“The doctor told me to stay calm because ultrasound scans showed nothing,” Rodriguez said, but in May – seven months into the pregnancy- everything changed. “They began to notice a delay in the baby's growth; my doctor told me not to worry because it could be stress-related, but I kept thinking about Zika.”
After 15 days of bed rest, however, the head of the baby was still not growing. They ordered a TORCH screen for a variety of infections (toxoplasmosis, syphilis, varicella-zoster, etc.) and it came back negative.
“Then a perinatologist made me a genetic ultrasound and it diagnosed my child with microcephaly and ventriculomegaly,” she recalled. “It was devastating, very difficult.”
The Institute of Tropical Medicine at the Central University of Venezuela predicts that by the end of the year between 563 and 1,400 Venezuelan babies will be born with Zika-related microcephaly, a condition that disrupts the normal processes of brain growth and results in a small head and brain.
Zika is hitting Venezuela particularly hard. In February, Fox News Latino reported that 118,000 people who had been infected with Zika, and 11 people have died from the illness. But hundreds perhaps thousands more have been infected since then.
In Venezuela, where hospitals and doctors operate under extremely limited conditions due to the financial crisis, children born with complications by Zika do not have many options for a safe birth. More than 60 percent of the services provided by the emergency pediatric intensive care are offered only intermittently and more than 15 percent of those services are simply not available, according to a recent National Survey of Hospitals conducted by the Venezuelan Observatory of Health.
The study also showed that 29.3 percent of ultrasound services, 80 percent of CT scan machines and 95 percent of laboratories are out of service in public hospitals.
Zika diagnoses are only confirmed by the state-run National Institute of Hygiene, which neurologist Marco Gudiño, who has seen 12 cases of microcephaly by Zika so far, called a “black box” — he said he has not received the result of any of the samples sent since April.
Rodriguez’s baby boy – her first child - was born on July 15 with a head circumference of 11.6 inches, more than an inch smaller than the World Health Organization standard to diagnose microcephaly. The baby doesn’t seem to hear or see well, so she must take him to occupational and speech therapy, as well as a physiotherapist.
But the kind of multidisciplinary treatment these babies require is not available in most public hospitals here, so poor families are left with no options but to beg for help in the private health system.
“Financially it has been very difficult, there are so many expenses,” said Leandra Sánchez, a 17- year-old mother of a baby born with Zika-related microcephaly and bilateral ventriculomegaly.
Sanchez said her husband is unemployed and she is a part-time student.
“The situation is very difficult because in addition to medical expenses we have to buy diapers, milk and food in the black market, because I cannot leave the baby alone to be standing in line all day to buy on the market at prices regulated by the government,” she said.
Local neuroscientist Eva Maria Perez told FNL that while there are cases of smaller brains developing normally, in most cases there will be difficulties such as a developmental delays or cognitive disabilities or motor problems.
The Venezuelan Society of Infectious Diseases has asked the Ministry of Health to design a treatment protocol for the hundreds of microcephaly cases that will continue to arise — but those guidelines have not yet been made available.
"If someone is born without a finger, that does not mean he or she cannot move the hand,” Dr. Perez urged. “Early intervention programs give plasticity to children and help improve the quality of the existing organ."
María Emilia Jorge M. is a freelancer journalist living in Caracas, Venezuela.