The Latest On Zika: Infection In Utero May Trigger Mental Illness

Infections during pregnancy could increase kids' risk for schizophrenia, autism and bipolar disorder.
Dr. Juan Garcia, director of the Center for Parasitological Studies and Vectors of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of La Plata National University, takes a sample of <em>Aedes aegypti</em> mosquito larvae in Argentina on Feb. 17, 2016.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
Dr. Juan Garcia, director of the Center for Parasitological Studies and Vectors of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of La Plata National University, takes a sample of Aedes aegypti mosquito larvae in Argentina on Feb. 17, 2016.

The Zika virus, which is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is strongly suspected to be linked to a new wave of microcephaly cases in Brazil. Babies born with the birth defect have smaller heads and sometimes brains that aren't fully developed, which can result in life-long developmental problems.

Zika is currently spreading through Central and South America and the Caribbean, and with the high volume of news about the virus, it's tough to stay up-to-date. Check out our full coverage, or read our daily recaps.

Here are seven updates, opinions and developments to know about now:

1. Confirmation of Zika's connection to microcephaly is expected in May

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is launching the largest government-led study to date on the suspected link between Zika virus and microcephaly, reports Reuters. Together with scientists from Brazil’s health ministry, they will enroll 100 mothers with babies that have microcephaly, as well as 300 to 400 pairs of mothers with healthy babies. The two groups will be tested to see if they have signs of past Zika virus infection, as well as queried about other kinds of environmental exposures during pregnancy that may have caused microcephaly.

Scientists hope that this research will reveal the relative risk of microcephaly -- in other words, the probability of having a baby with microcephaly -- in women that had Zika virus as opposed to women who didn’t have it, and preliminary results are expected by May.

Colombian researchers, meanwhile, are conducting a study that looks forward in time. They're following 2,000 pregnant women with Zika virus to see whether they give birth to a healthy baby or a baby with microcephaly, the Associated Press reports.

The World Health Organization says there’s growing evidence to suggest a link between the virus and birth defects in babies; Brazilian doctors have found the virus in the brains of babies born with microcephaly, reports Reuters. However, WHO’s executive director Dr. Bruce Aylward said it could be four to six months before scientists confirm the relationship.

2. The World Health Organizations gives a thumbs up to the 2016 Rio Olympics

Aylward said he was confident that Brazil is going to have a “fantastic,” “successful” Olympics, and that the country will get the mosquito population under control by August, when the international games start. An estimated 1.5 million Brazilians may have contracted Zika virus, and more cases are expected. Because of this, Aylward said he expects many people will have an immunity by the time the Olympics starts.

However, global travel data suggests that others don’t share Aylward’s sunny perspective. Airline ticket sales to Latin American and Caribbean destinations have fallen 3.4 percent compared to last year, reports Reuters. Before the CDC warning was issued Jan. 15, ticket sales to these destinations were actually up 4.9 percent.

3. Zika virus may cause future mental illness in babies who appear to be normal

Because Zika virus appears to be causing physical brain defects in infants, researchers believe the disease could also ultimately affect the mental health of children who appear to be born healthy, reports the New York Times. In other words, not all of the ways it affects the brain may be as immediately obvious as microcephaly.

There is increasing evidence that exposure in utero to infections like rubella, herpes and flu may potentially contribute to higher rates of schizophrenia, autism and bipolar disorder, the Times notes. Scientists need to do more research to see what, if any, link there may be between Zika virus exposure in utero and mental health issues later on in a child's life.

4. Puerto Rico gets ready to import all its blood for $100,000 per week

Puerto Rico will begin importing its entire blood supply from the continental United States at a cost of $100,000 per week because of Zika virus, Reuters reports. So far there have only been a handful of local transmissions of the virus in the territory, but health officials anticipate that that the number of cases there will shoot into the thousands during peak mosquito season this summer.

The cost of importing blood is expected to create major hardship in Puerto Rico, which is currently $70 billion in debt and has a poverty rate of 45 percent. Local officials are also worried about the possibility that importing blood will derail the county's voluntary blood donation system after Zika is no longer a threat. The U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa are also experiencing local Zika transmissions, but both already import their blood supply from the continental U.S. and Hawaii.

5. U.S. and Brazil join forces to find a vaccine for Zika virus

Both nations’ top medical experts will share resources and information to confirm the suspected link between Zika virus and create a vaccine for the disease, reports Reuters.

There are at least 15 companies or academic groups around the world trying to create a vaccine. In a press conference last Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that at least three pharmaceutical companies were in talks with his agency to develop Zika virus vaccines. The NIAID is currently working on two different kinds of Zika virus vaccines.

6. Scientists question an oft-cited fact about the Zika virus

Zika virus experts often say that only about one in five infected people will feel any symptoms at all when they contract the disease, making it difficult to know for certain how many people have it.

It turns out that this figure is based on a single study published about an outbreak on the tiny island of Yap, home to a little over 7,000 residents, reports Reuters. Researchers, especially those in Brazil, are now questioning this statistic, saying that it needs to be revisited in light of the fact that their country is much bigger, more diverse and has experienced the largest outbreak to date. In addition to learning more about the suspected link to microcephaly, Brazilian researchers say having a more accurate number will help them calculate the people who didn’t get the virus, and thus remain vulnerable to a future outbreak.

Health officials estimate that as many as 1.5 million in Brazil may have been infected with Zika virus.

7. CDC issues first-ever guidelines for babies and children infected with Zika virus

On Friday, the CDC issued their first Zika guidelines for doctors who treat children and infants. These were made up of three separate parts:

Children: Doctors should suspect and test for Zika virus in babies and children under 18 years old if they have two or more symptoms (fever, rash, red eyes or joint pain) and if they’ve traveled to or lived in an area with ongoing Zika virus transmission in the past two weeks. And because moms can pass Zika virus to their babies during delivery, doctors should also suspect and test for Zika virus in newborns two weeks old and less under those same conditions.

Newborns: Doctors may also want to test newborn babies for Zika virus if they appear to have microcephaly or brain calcifications in the womb or at birth, or if their mothers test positive for the disease during the pregnancy, the CDC says. However, babies without these specific issues, or whose mothers tested negative for the disease or weren’t tested at all, should continue receiving care as normal.

Breastfeeding: Despite the fact that Zika virus RNA has been found in breast milk, there is no evidence that breastfeeding can pass the disease from mother to child. Because of this, the CDC guidelines also state that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the theoretical transmission risk. Like adults, babies and children who contract Zika virus will likely experience only mild symptoms, the CDC notes. If anyone turns up positive, avoiding future mosquito bites is of upmost importance in order to prevent it from spreading to others.

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