Zika terror for pregnant women in Guatemala

A group of pregnant women waiting to be attended to at the Guatemalan Social Security Institute in Guatemala City on Tuesday.
A group of pregnant women waiting to be attended to at the Guatemalan Social Security Institute in Guatemala City on Tuesday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Lines of expecting mums form at hospitals in Latin American country, which saw 68 cases at the end of December

GUATEMALA CITY • Ms Yolanda Tobar is sitting on a plastic chair in a Guatemalan hospital waiting for a pre-natal check-up that should have been routine but has turned frightening because of Zika.

Ms Tobar, who is 19 years old and eight months pregnant with her first child, waits alongside dozens of other pregnant Guatemalans facing the same fears over an outbreak of the tropical virus, which is blamed for causing a surge in brain-damaged babies in Latin America.

Zika, a mosquito-borne virus which arrived in Latin America last year, causes relatively mild, flu-like symptoms. But for expecting couples, the threat is harrowing - health officials in the region say the outbreak is linked to a surge in babies born with microcephaly, or abnormally small heads, a birth defect that can cause brain damage or death.

"The truth is that, yes, it worries me to know that the baby could be deformed," said Ms Tobar, who, like many of the women waiting at this public hospital in Guatemala City, admitted she knew little about the disease, its symptoms and the possible complications for newborns.

Guatemala had registered 68 cases of Zika at the end of last month. But there are fears that number could increase dramatically.

CALL TO TAKE PRECAUTIONS

If we comply with preventive strategies and measures, the virus will be controlled.

RENE MARROQUIN, head of obstetrics and gynaecology clinics for national health service IGSS.

Neighbouring El Salvador has urged women to avoid getting pregnant for the next two years.

Guatemala's humid lowlands are prime breeding grounds for the mosquito species that carries Zika, Aedes aegypti, health officials said.

The mosquito's habitat spans most of the Americas. The World Health Organisation has warned that every country in the hemisphere is at risk except Canada and Chile. Currently, the virus has been reported in around 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries, with Brazil, where 49 babies have died, being the hardest hit.

No specific treatment is available for Zika, although its symptoms can be treated.

Still, Guatemalan officials have gone on the offensive. At the public hospital Agence France-Presse visited, epidemiologist Karen Giron said any patient diagnosed with Zika would be isolated for five days to prevent transmission.

Any pregnant woman running a fever is considered a suspected Zika case, and all women at pre-natal clinics will undergo extra testing for birth defects in their babies.

The authorities are also stepping up measures to fight the mosquito population and warning people to take extreme precautions to avoid bites. "If we comply with preventive strategies and measures, the virus will be controlled," said head of obstetrics and gynaecology clinics for national health service Guatemalan Social Security Institute Rene Marroquin.

Still, there was no information on Zika posted on the walls of the Guatemala City hospital, despite a national alert to pre-natal clinics issued by the health authorities.

Some women said they had not even heard of Zika. "I haven't heard anything about that. I don't know what it is," said one.

But even for women who know about the risk, there is little to do but avoid mosquito bites and go for regular check-ups.

"It's worrying to know that the baby could be affected," said Ms Cindy Contreras, 30, who is seven months pregnant with her first child and was slowly advancing through the long line at the hospital.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline 'Zika terror for pregnant women in Guatemala'. Print Edition | Subscribe