Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, the government has reported zero new cases of Zika. But doctors on the ground are finding an alarming number of new infections among pregnant women. The government’s claims that the Zika crisis is over is being called into question: Could there be no new official cases because officials have just stopped counting? For this PBS NewsHour report from The GroundTruth Project and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, Beth Murphy tracks the course of Zika in Puerto Rico over the course of two years.
For more on this story, listen to the Reveal episode “The Storm After the Storm.”
Stefan Rodriguez was born with severe birth defects caused by the Zika virus… now 18 months, he will never be able to walk or talk.
Valerie: He’s having seizures now – oh, that’s it…
His mom, Valerie, tested positive at the height of the Zika epidemic in 2016…. when all pregnant women in Puerto Rico were tested – for free.
ZORRILLA: The zika epidemic really increased the number of birth defects in places where we had zika. It’s irrefutable.
Dr. Carmen Zorrilla is a long-time OB-GYN at University Hospital in San Juan. she says few of the island’s 4,000 Zika babies have problems as devastating as Stefan’s… but Zika can cause many other developmental issues, too – like eyesight and hearing problems.
ZORRILLA: And this is why I believe that testing during pregnancy is so important.
In the first 9 months of 2017, testing identified another 1500 pregnant women with Zika.
Then – in September – Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico…
Hurricane news nat
Maria destroyed the island and crippled the healthcare system – including many of the systems set up to respond to Zika.
ZORRILLA: We had a catastrophe, we stopped testing. // The health care system collapsed.
While the island’s health care system came back to life, the Zika testing program did not.
ZORRILLA: The health department concluded that there is no Zika, the epidemic ended the day of the hurricane.
Assistant Secretary of Health Concepción Quiñones de Longo claims the Zika testing program has been back up and running. And says there is no current evidence of the virus.
DR. CONCEPCION QUINONES LONGO: So far, we are not detecting new cases of Zika.
She also says within 3 weeks of the hurricane, her department sent zika samples to the cdc lab in atlanta for analysis.
But in an email, CDC officials refuted that saying: “The Puerto Rico health department did not send Zika tests to the CDC after Hurricane Maria.”
ZORRILLA: There was no Zika testing done since September 2017 – since the hurricane. So we have no way of knowing if we are still having transmission or not.
Doctors began questioning why the health department was misrepresenting the Zika response and risk. Dr. Alberto de la Vega is chief of the high risk pregnancy unit at University Hospital.
DE LA VEGA: This is an island with a lot of economic problems and first of all Zika is bad business for business. So the economic burden in huge.
Physicians say they fear the Puerto Rican government is more interested in protecting tourism than public health.
NAT: Mosquito workers closing truck door
There’s even evidence that the hurricane created more breeding grounds for mosquitos. Scientists from a private research group placed mosquito traps around San Juan neighborhoods. If they catch more than three of the Zika-carrying species per trap, the Zika risk is considered “significant.”
Scientist Marian Ortiz says these days when they study what’s in the traps, the numbers are three times that.
ORTIZ: There were more breeding sites because of the debris from the hurricane. So we saw places where we never saw larvae before, we were finding larvae. Because of the rain, there were many more breeding sites now available.
With public health officials claiming no new cases on the island… Dr. Zorrilla took matters into her own hands. She teamed up with the CDC to start a new testing program for pregnant women.
ZORRILLA: We’re going to testing for all pregnant women in our clinic during every trimester.
ZORRILLA: I hope it’s gone. I would love not to work with it. I want the evidence. If there’s no Zika, fantastic. If there’s Zika, let’s work on this.
With a team of doctors, she continued testing through spring , summer and now into the fall… with alarming results. The percentage of pregnant women testing positive for Zika today is almost as high as it was at the height of the epidemic in 2016. In this new study of 280 women, nine percent tested positive.
NAT: Singing Happy Birthday
When Stefan’s family celebrated his first birthday, they decided on a superhero theme…And dressed him like Clark Kent.
For Stefan, there is no cure. For the rest of the population, there is no vaccine.
26,000 births are expected this year with no formal Zika testing program in place.
For the PBS newshour… I’m Beth Murphy, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.