Puerto Rico may be underreporting Zika-related birth defects, experts say

The number of babies born in Puerto Rico with microcephaly and other Zika-related birth defects is much lower than expected, leaving some experts to wonder if authorities from the island nation are underreporting the actual rate of such congenital defects, according to a report from STAT.

Since the first case of locally acquired Zika was reported in Puerto Rico in December 2015, more than 3,300 Zika infections have been confirmed among pregnant women on the island. Among them, only 16 cases of congenital birth defects related to the virus have been reported, according to the report. The number of reported birth defects contradicts the CDC's findings that 1 in 10 of pregnant women in the continental U.S. infected with Zika had a baby or fetus with birth defects.

Some suspect Puerto Rico officials are downplaying the Zika problem to protect the island nation's tourism industry, upon which it is heavily dependent.

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"Puerto Rico's not escaping this. They're just hiding," a former U.S. official told STAT, speaking under the condition of anonymity. The official told STAT it became clear there were dozens of infants being born on the island nation with congenital Zika syndrome.

"They're kind of in denial about what the problem is," said the official. "And six months, a year, two years from now there will be all these babies who aren't learning and all these problems that will come to light."

In October 2016, the CDC ceased reporting on pregnancy outcomes among women with Zika in Puerto Rico because administrators on the island nation are not applying the same criteria for inclusion as the federal agency.

"We have an ongoing collaboration with Puerto Rico department of health," said Margaret Honein, PhD, chief of the CDC's birth defect branch, according to the report. "And we have ongoing discussions about working to align our case definitions. But at this time we're not fully aligned."

To read the full report, click here.

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