Zika epidemic uncovers Brazil’s hidden birth-defect problem

Alex Cuadros – Washington Post, 03/01/2016

As researchers race to establish a link between the Zika virus and a birth defect known as microcephaly, one of their biggest obstacles is the lack of reliable health data in Brazil, where the epidemic broke out there last year.

Since October, Brazil’s Health Ministry has received reports of about 5,600 suspected cases of microcephaly, in which babies are born with unusually small heads. Many cases have been thrown out, and many more are still being investigated, but given that the country previously reported 150 such cases per year, the number would still seem to indicate a massive jump.

Many doctors, though, say that the jump is largely illusory — based on massive underreporting of microcephaly and other birth defects in Brazil. What’s more, this poor record-keeping reflects much larger public health problems here: poor prenatal care and woefully inadequate services for children with disabilities. Until the Zika epidemic, these issues were mostly swept under the rug.

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