In a mammoth exercise, the government plans to measure the head circumference of every child born in the country to find out if there is any sudden rise of microcephaly — a birth defect that causes abnormally small heads in newborns and is a symptom of Zika virus.
Senior government officials said the current ‘Mother and Child Health Tracking’ system may be enhanced to allow recording of microcephaly cases. “We are still discussing it,” said a senior health official from union ministry of health and family welfare.
The tracking system allows the health department to monitor the number of pregnant women in the country and the pregnancy outcomes along with immunisation status of the child. The government’s plan to watch out for microcephaly cases came a day after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Zika to be a public health emergency of international concern. Currently, 23 countries have reported Zika transmission with most cases of Zika linked microcephaly cases reported in Brazil.
WHO had said earlier that Zika virus is likely to reach countries that have aedes aegypti mosquitos breeding. Indian cities and villages are breeding grounds for the species which is responsible for dengue spread. Last year, more than 90,000 dengue cases were reported in India indicating the huge breeding of aedes species which also transmits Zika.
A child who is born with a head circumference measuring less than 31.5-32 cm at birth is classified as a microcephaly case. A smaller head size restricts the growth of brain, leading to mental retardation. While the incidence rate of microcephaly in India is not known, the genetic disorder is seen in populations where there is marriage between close relatives.
On Thursday, the state health ministry had a high-level meeting to discuss the preparedness. “We will have to monitor every case of fever as Zika virus infection is known to cause mild fever, joint pain and conjunctivitis,” said Dr Mini Khetarpal, chief of epidemiology, BMC.
However in pregnant women, doctors suspect that Zika infection can cause microcephaly. “The only way we could trace Zika infection in India is by identifying any sudden spurt in cases of microcephaly. For this, an active surveillance is needed which can be done by measuring heads of every child born,” said Dr Pradeep Awate from Maharashtra health department.
Apart from increasing surveillance, the health department has also asked states to increase vector control activities by reducing breeding grounds of the aedes aegypti mosquito. The National Institute of Virology and the NCDC laboratory in Delhi are equipped to test blood samples for any person suspected of having the infection. Mumbai’s Kasturba Hospital laboratory personnel will be trained by NIV to do the tests in the coming days.