Biting Habits

Hugh Pennington on the Zika virus

‘The recent cluster of cases of microcephaly and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.’ The statement by Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organisation, on 1 February was very precise. It wasn’t about the spread of Zika virus itself, but about the possible complications of an infection caused by it. The ‘neurological disorders’ are cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, victims of which have paralysis ascending from their legs, sometimes leading to respiratory failure, and loss of feeling with a ‘glove and stocking’ distribution. It isn’t rare. Neither is microcephaly. I looked after people with it when I was a nurse in a hospital for the intellectually disabled (established 150 years ago as the Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles of the Seven Northern Counties). Congenital microcephaly is a devastating condition. Children with it will at best have severe intellectual impairment for the whole of their lives. But 90 per cent of Guillain-Barré syndrome sufferers recover. As a houseman in London, I looked after a totally paralysed pregnant patient. Her delivery was fast and uneventful. Recovery started at once. A month later only her eyelids remained weak.

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