Microcephaly cases in Angola point to African Zika outbreak

Emiliano is one of at least 72 babies born with microcephaly in Angola between February 2017 and May 2018, suspected victims of an emerging Zika outbreak. The cases have gone largely unreported, but an internal World Health Organization report reviewed by Reuters concluded in April that two cases of a potentially dangerous strain of Zika confirmed in early 2017, along with the microcephaly cases identified since then, provided strong evidence of a Zika-linked microcephaly cluster in Angola.

A lack of data and diagnostic testing along with the woefully inadequate Angolan health system has made tracking the outbreak difficult. But new findings from a research team in Portugal suggest that it is the first on the African mainland involving the Asian strain of the disease.

It was the Asian strain that has caused at least 3,762 cases of Zika-related birth defects, including microcephaly, in Brazil since 2015, as well as serious outbreaks in other Latin American countries. Doctors and researchers now fear that it could spread from Angola to other African countries.

“We can’t let our attention down on this. We have to stay vigilant and have a sustained response.”

In an emailed response to questions, Angola’s Ministry of Health said it had reports of 41 cases of Zika and 56 cases of microcephaly since January 2017, when it began gathering data. It was not immediately clear why the figures differed from those in the internal WHO report.

A lack of testing capacity means that many cases of microcephaly go undetected, the ministry added, noting also that microcephaly has many causes, including syphilis and rubella.

The Angolan outbreak comes at a time when world attention has moved on from Zika, and most of the more than $1 billion in U.S. funding allocated to fight the disease has been spent.

“We can’t let our attention down on this,” said Dr. Eve Lackritz, a physician who leads WHO’s Zika task force. “We have to stay vigilant and have a sustained response.”