NEW YORK – Puerto Rico's health ministry confirmed on Friday its first case of Zika-related microcephaly in a fetus, increasing concerns of the virus' spread by mosquitoes and the financially strapped U.S. commonwealth's ability to address the growing health crisis.
"This is the first case of congenital and developmental Zika in the product of a pregnancy that are detected or reported in Puerto Rico," Dr. Brenda Rivera, the island's chief epidemiologist told Reuters in a telephone interview.
U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies.
The World Health Organization has said there is strong scientific consensus that Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological syndrome that causes temporary paralysis in adults.
Rivera said the fetus was donated by a family that did not have any recent travel history. Details about the pregnancy were kept to a minimum at the family's request.
An ultrasound examination by a primary care physician several weeks ago detected the fetus had abnormalities. Confirmation that Zika was present in the brain tissue of the fetus came this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rivera said.
"The product of this pregnancy was donated by the family to the department of health. This fetus was determined to have severe microcephaly and intracranial calcifications, which is what you tend to see with these cases," Rivera said.
Puerto Rico's social services have been severely hampered over the last few years by an increasingly dire fiscal crisis that has resulted in hospitals closing wards to save money and doctors emigrating to the mainland for better paying jobs.
The government, which is struggling with a 45 percent poverty rate, has said it cannot pay back all of the roughly $70 billion in debt it owes to creditors.
On Monday the White House said it was concerned the debt crisis could hamper the ability of Puerto Rico to address the potential public health crisis caused by the spread of Zika which has sickened nearly 700 people on the island.
President Barack Obama has requested $1.9 billion in funding to battle Zika on the island.
Attempts by the U.S. Congress to present and pass legislation to address Puerto Rico's financial crisis have so far failed to materialize, leading to speculation that what will eventually be needed is humanitarian aid relief rather than simply a financial fix.
Lawmakers next week could take up both the financial as well as Zika-related bills.
The connection between Zika and microcephaly first came to light last fall in Brazil, which has now confirmed more than 1,100 cases of microcephaly that it considers to be related to Zika infections in the mothers.
(Reporting By Daniel Bases; Editing by Bernard Orr)