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Why The Low Zika Numbers In Haiti Might Be Wrong

Maudeline Orelien, 22, with her son, Wilguens Pierre, who was born in July with microcephaly.
Jason Beaubien
Maudeline Orelien, 22, with her son, Wilguens Pierre, who was born in July with microcephaly.

The Dominican Republic has identified nearly 1,000 pregnant women suspected of being infected with the Zika virus. Haiti, which shares the same island, has identified only 22.

"There's no reason to believe that the mosquito will behave differently here [in Haiti] than in the Dominican Republic," says Dr. Jean Luc Poncelet, the World Health Organization's representative in Port-au-Prince.

Why are the numbers so dramatically different? Dr. Louise Ivers, with the nonprofit Partners in Health, which runs the largest teaching hospital in Haiti, is concerned that Zika is spreading as a silent epidemic.

Indeed, Haiti has all the ingredients for a major outbreak. The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the virus, is widespread. Open sewers and ravines covered in trash provide ideal breeding grounds for the mosquitoes. A doctors strike over the past four months — it just ended — pushed the public health system into crisis, making it less likely that health care officials would pay attention to Zika.

Poncelet says part of the problem is that the country doesn't have the resources to test extensively for Zika. Haiti is also in the midst of a political crisis that has left it without an elected government since February. And it faces numerous other health issues, including a cholera outbreak that has sickened 25,000 people this year alone.

Billboards advertise the scheduled October election in Haiti, which has been without an elected government since February.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
Billboards advertise the scheduled October election in Haiti, which has been without an elected government since February.

Meanwhile, the effects of Zika are apparent, even though the nation is reporting only a handful of confirmed cases.

Doctors at public, private and religious hospitals say they're seeing an increase in babies born with microcephaly — a condition that the World Health Organization has linked to Zika — as well as a spike in Guillain-Barre syndrome, a condition that can spring from Zika. Haiti has few services for people with disabilities so it's unclear how the country will be able to cope with a surge in severely disabled children.

At the Mirebalais Hospital in Haiti's central plateau, doctors say they've had four babies born this year with microcephaly — three of them in July. Dr. Ivers and Dr. Roman Jean-Louis are tracking the development of the children. Ivers checks the reflexes of a girl named Chinashama, who is on the examining table.

"So this baby has much more muscle tone than the other [microcephalic] babies," she says. "She's sort of fighting me, and the other really was not doing that much.

But the girl's legs cross unnaturally at the shins, and one foot doesn't respond when Ivers runs her finger over the sole. The baby's mother says the child cries almost all the time.

Jean-Louis says he used to see perhaps one or at most two cases of microcephaly a year, but never three in one month.

Ivers is concerned that Haiti is unprepared to care for babies suffering from severe developmental delays because of Zika.

Life is already tough in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Sixty percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day, and there are few services for children with physical and neurological disabilities.

One resource is the Kay St. Germaine rehabilitation center in the Tabarre section of Port-au-Prince.

Outside the gate, a mother holds a child with twisted limbs and a floppy neck.
Inside, Annette Johansson, a volunteer from Sweden, is preparing for the start of the fall semester.

"Here we have the resource room," Johansson says as she walks through the compound. "And a speech and language therapy room. But at the moment we don't have any trained speech and language therapists."

The center provides physical therapy and basic education to children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism and other neurological disorders. Much of their work, Johansson says, is training parents to care for a disabled child.

"Because they [the parents] need to be able to change them, dress them, feed them in a safe manner," she says. "We don't have the equipment that you have in America or Europe. We can't give them feeding tubes, so it's really important that they know how to handle their kids, position them the best way possible."

Haiti is an incredibly hard place to look after a disabled child, she says.

Most of the families that bring their children to the center live in the poor sections of Port-au-Prince, with as many as four or five people in a one-room shack. The houses often aren't accessible by paved roads or sidewalks, so they aren't accessible to wheelchairs.

"So we can't provide them chairs," Johansson says. "Well, first of all we don't have any chairs. Second of all, they don't have room for chairs or they don't have anywhere to store them indoors."

Many of the parents bring their children to the center in the beat-up pickup truck taxis known as tap-taps that barrel across Port-au-Prince and serve as Haiti's main form of public transportation.

"I don't know if you've seen the tap-taps and how full they are," she says. "And then imagine you're going to try to get a disabled child into this." She shakes her head as if the very thought of it is overwhelming.

Just up the dusty dirt road from Kay St. Germaine is the St. Damien children's hospital. It's run by the same Catholic organization that runs the rehab center. The hospital administrator, Jacqueline Gautier, says disability is the leading reason children are abandoned in Haiti.

"Many times the parents just leave them," she says. "Actually we have [a] room full of 10 children like that. And all hospitals have a small unit with abandoned children."

She can usually find homes for able-bodied kids, but the disabled children will most likely stay at the hospital for the rest of their lives. Her hospital has also had three babies born recently with microcephaly. They've sent blood samples to the national laboratory to test for Zika but haven't yet gotten any results back.

"It's very hard," she says. "The last one is still hospitalized, because the mother died. The father lives elsewhere now. The baby has seizures, so the baby is still with us."

She's hoping Haiti will be spared from Zika, that maybe it won't be as bad here as in some other places.

But she shrugs and says they'll just have to wait and see.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.