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Colombia City Grapples With Major Zika Outbreak


As we follow the Zika virus move out from Brazil, where it first came to worldwide attention, we find it surging through its northern neighbor Colombia. That country has the second highest number of infections. NPR's Nurith Aizenman is there now, coming to us from the Colombian city of Cucuta. Good morning.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us something about this city that you're in.

AIZENMAN: Well, this is a medium-sized city in the northeast. And we're here because it's the heart of the Zika outbreak in Colombia right now. Almost one out of every five of the Zika cases in Colombia is in this state, where the city of Cucuta is. That's about 6,000 people infected. Nationwide, Colombian officials are reporting that more than 30,000 people have come down with Zika. And those are just the people with symptoms. There are presumably many more people who've been infected but who are symptom-free. And also this area where I am is right up against the border with Venezuela, which is the closest country to Brazil's outbreak zone. And even though Venezuela's government isn't reporting a lot of Zika cases, a lot of global health experts suspect there's also a major outbreak going on over there.

MONTAGNE: And then how are people in Cucuta reacting to this outbreak of Zika?

AIZENMAN: You know, most people I'm meeting aren't at all worried. NPR producer Becky Sullivan and I came here armed with every kind of mosquito repellent you could think of. But people in Cucuta say they just take mosquitoes as a fact of life. And, you know, for most people coming down with Zika just means getting a rash, maybe a mild fever. Still, there is one really notable exception, and that's pregnant women.

MONTAGNE: And of course, that's because we're hearing so much about possible birth defects.

AIZENMAN: Right. There are concerns coming out of Brazil that Zika might be causing microcephaly there. That's the condition where the baby is born with an abnormally small head. And even though there isn't definitive proof that Zika is causing that in Brazil, there's a lot of fear in Colombia that this is going to be the next place we're going to see those cases. There are now more than 5,000 pregnant women who've been infected with Zika in Colombia, and the worry is palpable here. We visited two health clinics that offer prenatal care, one of them private, one of them government-run, and practically, every second pregnant woman who we talked to said she had been infected with Zika. This is a 25-year-old named Jareed Pineda. She's 22 weeks pregnant with twin boys. And five weeks ago, she came down with Zika. I spoke with her in Spanish outside a health clinic.

JAREED PINEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

AIZENMAN: She's telling me that now every time she goes for an ultrasound, she crosses her fingers hoping that they won't find a problem. But she says she also tries to calm herself down by reminding herself how much her babies are kicking. She says they really active.

MONTAGNE: And doctors, what can they do for these women?

AIZENMAN: Several doctors who we spoke with said they are in a really tough spot because there isn't much they can do. There's no vaccine for Zika. There's no cure. There's no clear way to reverse any birth defects that might be linked to it. So, Colombia is in this really weird situation where officials are preparing for this possible major public health crisis that they really don't know much about.

MONTAGNE: Nurith, thank you very much.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman speaking to us from Cucuta, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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