Long term effects of Zika virus exposure during pregnancy studied

Zika is a mosquito borne virus that can be dangerous in pregnant women as it can cause severe congenital malformations and damage to the baby. The extent of danger however is not known and a large study followed children who were exposed to this virus during their time within the womb.

Zika virus in blood with red blood cells, a virus which causes Zika fever found in Brazil and other tropical countries.  Image Credit: Kateryna Kon / Shutterstock
Zika virus in blood with red blood cells, a virus which causes Zika fever found in Brazil and other tropical countries. Image Credit: Kateryna Kon / Shutterstock

Zika was declared an emergency in 2016 after large number of cases were reported from Brazil. The pregnant women affected with the virus gave birth to babies with very small heads and damaged and immature brains. This condition was called microcephaly. Doctors soon found that these babies also developed other problems such as epilepsy, vision loss and problems with development.

This new study report or the Vital Signs report followed 1450 babies who have been exposed to the Zika virus. These babies were one year old in February 2018. It was found that 6 percent of the exposed babies were born with birth defects while 14 percent developed certain health problems that could be attributed to the virus by the time the child turned one.

Margaret Honein director of the Division of Congenital and Developmental Disorders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that this study showed the “full spectrum of impact” of Zika on the children. The study was released yesterday by the CDC and Honein said in a statement, “This is really our first look at how these children are doing as they grow and develop, and really emphasizes that the Zika story is not over, particularly for these children.”

Last year the CDC reported that 5 percent of the babies exposed to the Zika virus were born with microcephaly and this study reveals that there are other problems that appear as the child grows. This new study included babies born in U.S. territories such as American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and US Virgin Islands. The risk of microcephaly was found to be 6 percent – higher than speculated before. Further 1 in 7 babies (14 percent) were likely to develop other problems as well. The study found that 20 babies who were born with a normal head circumference developed microcephaly by the time they were one year old. According to Honein, this was occurring because of the impaired brain development among these babies.

Honein explained that these babies that seemed apparently normal at birth developed problems with development, cognitive problems, difficulties in walking, swallowing, moving and also developed seizures. She said, “It's really important that parents and doctors work together to make sure children get all the evaluations they need, even if they look healthy when they are born.” She said that they had found that only one in three babies exposed to Zika in utero were routinely checked for eye problems. “We are still in the early stages of learning about Zika. So we don't yet know what sort of problems might emerge when the children are 2 years old or 3 years old or when they reach school age,” Honein said. She warned that the transmission of the virus is still active and there could be more outbreaks in future and parents should be aware of the damage this virus could cause.

The CDC this week also released guidelines for men who have been exposed to the Zika virus and have asked them to wait for at least three months after contracting the virus before they can conceive to stop the transmission of the virus to the female partner and in turn the unborn baby. Earlier the guidelines had suggested a six month wait. At present there are no vaccines against Zika virus.

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