Colombia Is Carefully Screening Pregnant Women To See If There Are Any Signs Of Fetal Brain Damage : Goats and Soda Researchers say Colombia offers a chance to learn more about Zika's possible link to microcephaly. If the country sees a sudden rise in cases as Brazil did, that's stronger evidence of a connection.
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All Eyes Are On Colombia: Will Zika Trigger A Spike In Microcephaly?

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All Eyes Are On Colombia: Will Zika Trigger A Spike In Microcephaly?

All Eyes Are On Colombia: Will Zika Trigger A Spike In Microcephaly?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Scientists are racing to solve a medical mystery. Does the Zika virus cause birth defects? Over the last year, hundreds of babies in Brazil have been born with unusually small heads. It's a condition known as microcephaly. Their mothers all had Zika when they were pregnant. Well, now attention is turning to Columbia. It too has thousands of Zika cases, and researchers say if there really is a link, that's where the next surge in birth defects could be. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

SAMUEL BAUTISTA: Cual es tu nombre?

KEILA ATUESTA JAIMES: Keila.

BAUTISTA: Keila, no?

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Keila Atuesta Jaimes is lying on an exam table next to an ultrasound machine. The doctor moves the wand across her belly. It's pretty flat. She's only about three months pregnant. But suddenly, there's the heartbeat. She gives a nervous smile. About three weeks ago, she came down with the kind of rash and fever she figured could only mean one thing - Zika. The hospital in a city called Cucuta is waiting on the blood test, but they went ahead and scheduled this special ultrasound extra high-resolution. Now Dr. Samuel Bautista is carefully scanning the image on his screen. He says if this baby has microcephaly...

BAUTISTA: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "I might see little bright spots - signs of calcification, sings of damage. Happily, there are none. There's no problem," he tells Atuesta.

BAUTISTA: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "All the same, he says..."

BAUTISTA: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: She'll need to come back every month until the baby is born. It's a new protocol that Colombia's government has set up to track the progress of every pregnant woman suspected of contracting Zika, more than 6,000 so far. The key moment could come in the second or third trimester. That's when they would expect signs of the brain damage to show up. Effectively, all these women have become unwilling participants in a giant science experiment. Fernando Ruiz Gomez is Colombia's vice minister of health.

FERNANDO RUIZ GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "Suddenly, we found ourselves in the eye of the hurricane, he says." Experts from all over the world are converging on the country. They're coordinating with Colombia's own scientist to set up studies. The first recorded cases of Zika started showing up in October, and Ruiz says based on how things played out in Brazil, that means you'd expect to see the first births of kids with microcephaly here in April with the largest rush in August. But still, he says there's a glimmer of hope.

RUIZ: (Through interpreter) All the same, you'd expect that by now, we'd have had at least some cases, even just a few cases of babies being born with microcephaly or signs of birth defects showing up on the ultrasounds.

AIZENMAN: So far, they've been none. Regardless, doctors here say they can't get answers soon enough.

ORLANDO VILLAMIZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Abortion is legal in some cases in Columbia, and at a private clinic not far from the hospital, Dr. Orlando Villamizar says he's been having a lot of tough conversations with terrified women who are in their first trimester and have come down with Zika.

VILLAMIZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "They're saying to me, terminate my pregnancy because I don't want to have a baby with microcephaly." It puts him in a tight spot. Even if their ultrasounds look great, he can't guarantee their baby is fine. On the other hand...

VILLAMIZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: ...He can't say that any of them actually will get microcephaly, he says. For now, he's recommending that they keep their babies, and all of his patients have followed that advice. But basically, he says, I'm just waiting for the results of all these studies that are being done on Colombia's women. All we can do is wait and see what happens to them. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News, Cucuta, Colombia.

SIEGEL: And that story was produced by NPR's Becky Sullivan.

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