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article imageMicrocephaly — Is it Zika or maybe, agrochemicals?

By Karen Graham     Feb 15, 2016 in Health
Proving birth defects, and in particular, microcephaly in newborns is linked to the Zika virus is more difficult than many people realize. While cases of microcephaly have been found in seven countries, determining the cause is still a long way off.
A large number of babies were born in Brazil two years before the Zika virus was thought to have entered the country. Most of the cases of microcephaly were in the northeastern part of the country, and the number of cases has continued to rise, reported CBC Canada on February 10.
However, after the Zika virus entered the picture, it seemed to be the most obvious disease to blame for the babies being born with the birth defect, and scientists went to work to try and prove their assumptions. And indeed, the Zika virus has been found in fetuses who have died.
A child born with microcephaly.
A child born with microcephaly.
World Health Organization
To this end, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the World Health organization have jumped on the "Zika causes birth defects" bandwagon, saying it's possible, but just not conclusive that Zika can cause birth defects. But in an abundance of caution, the organizations have issued alerts for pregnant women traveling to countries affected by the virus.
The possibility of another reason for microcephaly suggested
While health authorities are working to prove the mosquito-borne virus is responsible for all the birth defects being seen in Brazil, another group of doctors has been studying the problem, and have suggested there may be another cause for the increase in microcephaly cases.
Pediatric cardiologist Dr. Sandra Mattos studies and treats congenital heart disease, and as part of her studies, she has been collecting data on over 100,000 babies born in the northeastern Brazilian state of Paraiba. Concerns over the Zika virus and its implications in microcephaly resulted in Mattos and her team going through hospital records for head circumferences of more than 1,600 babies born in the state in the last four years.
"We were very, very surprised," Mattos said. Babies with mild microcephaly were present in the population dating back to at least 2012. She pointed out that having a head circumference that is only slightly below normal does not mean there is a neurological disease, though. "Borderline cases seem to be present all along," she said.
Mattos also said her data shows that microcephaly began to increase in the area beginning in October or November of 2014. One of the things that is perplexing to Dr. Mattos and her colleagues is that over 80 percent of the cases of microcephaly are in the northeastern section of the country.
Another even more perplexing question, says Dr. Mattos, is why has microcephaly not appeared in other Latin American countries with similar climates, such as among the 2,100 pregnant women infected with Zika in Colombia?
A health municipal employee fumigates in Salvador  Bahía  Brazil on January 29  2016 against the mo...
A health municipal employee fumigates in Salvador, Bahía, Brazil on January 29, 2016 against the mosquito-borne Zika virus
Christophe Simon, AFP
Mattos and her research team submitted their study to the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, suggesting other potential reasons for the increase in neurological birth defects. In part, the study suggested: "The possibility of boosting effects from associated infections, perhaps even viral infections, such as DENV and CHIKV, both carried by the same Aedes aegypti vector. Also to be considered is teratogens exposure, such as vaccines or drugs used in early pregnancy. Further, malnutrition, which has previously been associated with microcephaly, could have an intensifying effect when coupled with other etiological factors. Indeed, most of the reported cases have occurred in low-income families."
What about the use of agrochemicals?
Berlin epidemiologist Dr. Christoph Zink has also been charting the data on the Zika virus, and he also noted the preponderance of cases of microcephaly coming from the northeastern region of Brazil. "I soon got the idea that blaming the Zika virus for this epidemic does not really get to the point," Zink said.
Dr. Zink thinks there was a great deal of under-reporting in the five years before the outbreak, and he has also proposed another explanation for the sudden upsurge in cases of microcephaly in the northeast. "I would ask my toxicological colleagues in Brazil to please look very closely into the practical application of agrochemicals in their country," Zink said.
Interestingly, there is a report, written by a group of Argentine and Brazilian doctors calling themselves Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Towns (PCST). They suspect pyriproxyfen, a larvicide added to drinking water to stop the development of mosquito larva, as the cause of the birth defects. The pesticide, called SumiLarv, is manufactured by Monsanto's Japanese subsidiary, Sumitomo Chemical.
According to PCST, in 2014, the Brazilian Ministry of Health introduced pyriproxyfen into drinking-water reservoirs in the state of Pernambuco, where the proliferation of the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito is very high. PCST argues that the thousands of birth defects in children of women living in the area is no coincidence, even though the Ministry of Health has been quick to blame them on the Zika virus.
Recife  the biggest city in Pernambuco.
Recife, the biggest city in Pernambuco.
Direitos Urbanos
As the proof of the pudding, the Ministry of Health figures back PCST up: Pernambuco continues with the greatest number of birth defect cases that remain under investigation (1125), followed by the states of Paraíba (497), Bahia (471), Ceará (218), Sergipe (172 ), Alagoas (158), Rio Grande do Norte (133), Rio de Janeiro (122) and Maranhao (119).
One more organization has added its opinion to the possible use of pesticides being the root of the problem. GM Watch wrote Abrasco, an organization of Brazilian doctors and public health researchers had this to say about the use of pesticides: "Abrasco suggests that this strategy is in fact driven by the commercial interests of the chemical industry, which it says is deeply integrated into the Latin American ministries of health, as well as the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization."
Not taking sides in this discussion, but knowing there is more than one possible reason for the increase in neurological defects is something health authorities should consider. What do you, the reader have to say?
More about microcephaly, Zika virus, agrochemicals, Pernambuco state, northeastern brazil
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