Pregnant Women with Zika Have 1-in-5 Chance of Infant Brain Damage

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Medical experts are warning that new studies show the Zika virus is capable not only of producing in unborn children the brain defect microcephaly, but a variety of severe neurological deformities that could impair a child in unpredictable ways.

Doctors in Brazil studying the effect of Zika on the developing brain have found that up to 20 percent – or one in five – of unborn children will experience some form of neurological damage when exposed to Zika, according to the BBC. The network cites another study by the New England Journal of Medicine which found that 29 percent of those unborn children studies had some “abnormalities,” though how these manifested themselves was not found to be predictable.

The Zika virus has infected an estimated hundreds of thousands of people in Latin America during this current outbreak, which began to be formally documented in December 2015. In February, the Ministry of Health of Brazil, the nation with the highest number of Zika cases, confirmed a link between the Zika virus and a surge in the number of cases of microcephaly in newborns. Microcephaly is a condition in which a child’s skull is too small for his or her head, crushing the brain and causing severe damage. Every microcephaly case is different, though most children diagnosed with this disorder will need lifetime special care.

As of the end of April, Brazil has documented nearly 100,000 cases of Zika nationwide, with most in Rio de Janeiro, the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. This number is believed to be on the low side because most people infected with Zika do not experience any symptoms, and those who do experience mild fevers, conjunctivitis, and aches that may be dismissed as another disease.

The BBC report lists a number of other infant abnormalities that are alarming medical experts, that they have witnessed develop in experiments as a direct result of exposure to the Zika virus. Among them: ventriculomegaly, damage of the posterior fossa, craniocynostosis and cerebral calcification. Doctors fear that obstetricians in poorer areas of nations like Brazil and Colombia may not have the experience or technology to identify some of these disorders before the child is born.

Doctors are certain Zika operates in ways that kill brain cells, and does so more effectively in infants. In some adults, however, doctors have found Zika linked to Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a condition which causes severe muscular pain, paralysis, and death. GBS is treatable, however, and as such has only surfaced as a serious problem in areas where treatment is not readily available. In Venezuela, where there is a nationwide shortage of hundreds of basic medications, eleven people have died of Zika-related GBS.

Brazilian newspaper O Globo reports that the number of cases of Zika nationwide increased 2.5 percent in April. Despite this statistic, however, the World Health Organization is predicting Zika is in decline in Brazil as the Southern Hemisphere transitions into autumn. Zika is primarily transmitted through the aedes aegypti mosquito, which requires hot and humid climates to survive. “The virus, and therefore the epidemic could spread to all the places where there is a vector, so we are organizing a surveillance network in Africa,” Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General of WHO, said in a press conference this week.

Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made a similar prediction, suggesting that America had “a few short weeks” to prepare to contain the aedes aegypti population before summer hits. Last week, Puerto Rico reported its first Zika-related death, a 70-year-old man. Puerto Rico has already documented over 700 cases of Zika.

A study published in the medical journal eLife in April estimated that up to 2.2 billion people worldwide are at risk for contracting Zika virus.