Zika virus has exploded in recent months, both in the number of cases reported and in international coverage. While previous press and research strongly suspected a link between Zika and brain damage in developing babies (most infamously leading to conditions such as microcephaly), a new study from Finland is the first to confirm it. The study, which specifically observed a woman who had been infected with Zika during her 11th week of pregnancy while visiting Central America, was able to isolate the Zika virus from fetal tissue in cell culture. Researchers found that the virus can be detected from a blood sample taken from a pregnant woman even weeks after she has a rash or exhibits other symptoms associated with Zika (keeping in mind that 80% of Zika infections are asymptomatic. In the particular study, the scientists were able to use neuroimaging to track the baby’s brain development over the course of eight weeks, charting the abnormal activity along the way.
The study also answered this oft-asked question: If Zika virus has been around for ages in a variety of countries around the world, why is it causing so many problems now? The reason: the virus is mutating, and “some of these mutations may be associated with the adaptations of the virus to the fetal brain,” according to the lead researcher. We could hardly believe it when we learned of the recommendation for families in Brazil to strongly consider postponing procreation due to Zika in late December, but evolving recommendations from the CDC regarding care for pregnant women and women of reproductive age with possible Zika virus exposure now include guidelines for health care providers that state “In the context of the ongoing Zika virus transmission, preconception care should include a discussion of the signs and symptoms and the potential risks associated with Zika virus infection.” Although the CDC has not sounded the alarm quite as loudly as Brazil’s government, the precautions about travel and being aware of symptoms and risks have us wondering what we should expect in the United States.