Colombian Doctors Try To Figure Out If Ther Zika Virus Is Triggering A Rare And Mysterious Disorder : Goats and Soda Since the fall, Colombia has seen about 100 cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome. Most of the patients reported they'd had Zika virus. Researchers are trying to figure out what's going on.
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Colombian Clinic Probes A Mystery: Is Zika Triggering A Rare Disorder?

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Colombian Clinic Probes A Mystery: Is Zika Triggering A Rare Disorder?

Colombian Clinic Probes A Mystery: Is Zika Triggering A Rare Disorder?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/467318839/467318840" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And amid all the talk of Zika's link to the birth defect microcephaly, it has also been linked to a rare and mysterious neurological condition in adults. NPR's Nurith Aizenman takes us inside a clinic in Colombia where doctors are struggling to make sense of a surge in cases.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Ana Tilcia Cordero stands by her brother's hospital bed, staring at the breathing tube leading into his mouth. She touches his leg gently. "Can you feel it?" she asks.

ANA TILCIA CORDERO: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Her brother, a 58-year-old daily laborer name Jose Cordero, fixes his eyes on her and strains to shake his head. That's all he can manage. He's basically immobilized. We're at a clinic in the city of Cucuta. The head of the ICU, Dr. Arturo Arias, pokes his head into the room.

ARTURO ARIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "Look over here," the doctor says. He smiles, encouraging. "Don't worry, you'll get better soon."

ARIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: But as Dr. Arias leaves the room, his expression is dark. Cordero's situation is really serious, he says. He's suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome. It's a condition where your immune system basically starts to attack your nerves. For most people, it starts with tingling or numbness in the arms and the legs - like when your limbs fall asleep. From there, things can deteriorate fast.

ARIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: It gets harder and harder to move. Eventually, you can't get out of bed. In the worst cases, the paralysis is so severe, you can't even breathe without a machine. Ultimately, you recover from that, but it can take months to walk again. Some people never do. While Guillain-Barre is rare, at this ICU, Arias does see about a case a year. So when a patient came in with the syndrome the first week of January, Arias wasn't too bothered. The following week, two more patients arrived.

ARIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Two more patients, Arias thought, that's strange. When the fourth case showed up, he decided to call his friends at the other ICUs around town

ARIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Hey, how many Guillain-Barre cases have you had lately, he asked them. The answers stunned him.

ARIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: I've got four, said one colleague. Another had five - another eight. And there was something else. Practically every one of these patients said that shortly before they developed Guillain-Barre, they had come down with the telltale signs of a Zika infection - rashes, pinkeye, fever.

JUAN MANUEL ANAYA: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: Researcher Dr. Juan Manuel Anaya has just arrived at the ICU to puzzle out the connection. He's here from Colombia's capital, Bogota, where he directs a center for autoimmune disease research at the Universidad Del Rosario.

ANAYA: We think that Zika is involved in almost all the cases physicians in Cucuta have seen.

AIZENMAN: And it's not just here. Across Colombia, there have been almost 100 Guillain- Barre cases linked to Zika since the outbreak began. That's about twice the usual number. Other countries where Zika is spreading have seen similar spikes in Guillain-Barre cases - places like Brazil, El Salvador, Venezuela. And it turns out the same thing happened a few years ago during a Zika outbreak in French Polynesia.

Is there any question that Zika is linked to Guillain-Barre in your mind, or is that an open question?

ANAYA: Mostly open question.

AIZENMAN: Still, he says, viral infections are often a trigger for Guillain-Barre. To prove a link with Zika, researchers like Anaya - and there are now quite a number doing similar work - will also have to explain why only a small share of people who get Zika come down with Guillain-Barre.

ANAYA: We're going to look for previous exposure to toxics, for instance, or previous exposure to another virus.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: In the next room over, one of the Guillain-Barre patients is doing physical therapy to regain use of the muscles in his face.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: He's an 18-year-old college kid named Johann Castro Hernandez. He sits upright at a table, looking into a hand mirror, as his mother pushes his lips together into a pucker. He's supposed to hold the pucker, then release into a kiss. He's been here a month. His body looks weirdly thin - no muscle tone. His movements are slow and tentative. Tomorrow, he's set to go home. But it's been a rough road, says his mother, Janina Hernandez.

JANINA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: She says, "When he first got here, I kept telling him to rest. But he would say he was afraid if he went to sleep, he'd stopped breathing." Then one morning, that's exactly what happened.

JOHANN HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: "I started to shake and shake and shake," he says. "And the doctor said, we have to intubate him." By day, he says, he tried to keep up a brave face for his mother. But alone at night - I'm not going to lie, he says. There was more than one night that I cried.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: He says, "I got to point where I thought, am I going to be stuck like this?" But now, he says, he's optimistic. He's an athlete - loves soccer. I'm going to do these exercises every day, he says, until I can play again. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News, Cucuta, Colombia.

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