Evidence grows that Zika virus causes fetal and neurological abnormalities

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After studies last week strengthened the link between Zika virus and fetal abnormalities, including microcephaly, as well as to the neurological Guillain–Barré syndrome in adults, World Health Organization officials have called for a meeting of the emergency committee examining the international health threat posed by the virus to discuss recommendations on travel, trade, and ways to control the spread of the virus.

A case-control study during the French Polynesian Zika outbreak in 2013 and 2014 found that all 42 patients who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome during the outbreak had experienced Zika virus infection. Guillain-Barré syndrome is a condition in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing paralysis.

Another study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found neurological fetal abnormalities in 29 percent of a cohort of pregnant women infected with the virus in Brazil. Abnormalities include “fetal death, calcification of the brain, placental insufficiency with low to no amniotic fluid, fetal growth restriction, and central nervous system damage, including potential blindness.” The study also suggests infection during late first trimester or early second trimester is likely to result in the most severe consequences, although fetal injury was identified at all stages of pregnancy.

A depiction in Cell Stem Cell on how the Zika virus affects the nervous system.

A depiction in Cell Stem Cell on how the Zika virus affects the nervous system.

Another study published in Cell Stem Cell shows that Zika virus affects neural stem cells, which could be the way the virus causes microcephaly.

Almost 6,000 cases of microcephaly and central nervous system malformation were reported in Brazil in the past five months. That’s nearly a 40-fold increase over the average of 163 cases per year between 2001 and 2014.

Led by Senator Chris Murphy, 23 Senate Democrats last week urged appropriations leaders to fully fund President Obama’s $1.9 billion request to combat the Zika virus after Republicans rejected a number of requests for emergency supplemental appropriations.

In their letter to appropriations leaders, Senate Democrats “emphasized that a concurrent commitment to ending the Ebola epidemic is equally critical and should not be undermined or neglected,” according to a press release from Senator Murphy’s office.

The letter warns that shifting funding for Ebola research and treatment to address the Zika virus would “compromise public health infrastructures and increase health risks worldwide.”

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