Colombia confirms two microcephaly cases linked to Zika virus

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Two cases of microcephaly linked to the Zika virus have been confirmed in Colombia, but there has been no explosion of cases of the birth defect, the health ministry said on Thursday.

Public health officials have been concerned about the possibility of a surge in the rare birth defect, seen in worrisome numbers in Brazil, as the mosquito-borne virus spreads rapidly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

More than 1,100 Zika-related cases of microcephaly have been confirmed in Brazil, but the new figures indicated that its neighbor Colombia is not yet experiencing the same type of increase.

There have been 33 microcephaly cases recorded this year in Colombia associated with various causes, the health ministry said in a statement. Eighteen were investigated for a suspected link to Zika, and 16 of those cases were ruled out, it said.

Babies with microcephaly are born with unusually small heads that can result in developmental problems.

“We have not seen an explosion in cases of microcephaly,” vice health minister Fernando Ruiz said, adding that in typical years Colombia records 11 or 12 cases a month.

“We have a number of cases within normal range,” Ruiz added.

There eventually could be a total of between 95 and 300 cases of microcephaly in Colombia this year, the ministry said.

U.S. health authorities on Wednesday announced their conclusion that infection with the Zika virus during pregnancy causes microcephaly in babies.

The World Health Organization has said there is a strong scientific consensus that Zika can cause microcephaly as well as Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that can result in paralysis.

Colombia’s national health institute director, Martha Lucia Ospina, said figures previously put forward by the WHO, the U.N. health agency, showing eight babies in the country with Zika-linked microcephaly were incorrect. “There are two confirmed cases in this country,” she said.

One of those cases was in central Cundinamarca province. The other was in Norte de Santander, along the Venezuelan border.

There were previous reports of Zika-linked microcephaly in Colombia, but until Thursday health officials had said they could not confirm any cases caused by the virus.

There have been more than 60,000 reported cases of Zika infections in Colombia, including more than 11,000 in pregnant women, the national health institute said last week.

Many Colombian pregnant women infected with Zika are not due to give birth until May or later, but more than 2,700 have already given birth, officials said.

Brazil said on Tuesday it had confirmed 1,113 cases of Zika-related microcephaly. Brazil is investigating 3,836 additional suspected cases of microcephaly.

Reporting by Carlos Vargas and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Will Dunham