Brazilian researchers have found that the Zika virus may affect people of all ages, not just developing fetuses as originally thought. New laboratory studies show the virus homes in on brain cells, and it can temporarily cause a rare neurological disorder that is similar to multiple sclerosis.
The two studies were overseen by medical research teams in Brazil, where the upward trend in birth defects seemed to occur shortly after the arrival of the Zika virus in late 2015. Previously, the virus was mostly found in Asia and Africa.
Two studies in Brazil
The first study broadens the evidence that Zika is not only a concern for pregnant women but for people of all ages. Led by Patricia Garcez of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the team used lab-created stem cells, coaxing them to become immature brain cells. The Zika virus infected and killed the brain cells, according to the study, published in the journal Science.
A second study showed severe neurological effects from the virus. Led by Dr. Maria Lucia Brito Ferreira of Restoration Hospital in Recife, Brazil, the team described the cases of two patients with the Zika virus who developed a condition called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). In people with this condition, the body's own immune system causes swelling in the brain and spinal cord. It also damages the protective coating of nerve fibers, called myelin, resulting in weakness, numbness and loss of balance and vision. The symptoms are similar to those of multiple sclerosis. Although they usually are temporary, recovery can take more than six months.
Zika has already been linked to the autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome, which attacks peripheral nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, causing temporary paralysis.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated the virus is now being transmitted locally in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa. Of the 354 cases confirmed there, only three are travel-related, and 37 involved pregnant women. The CDC estimates the number of Zika cases in Puerto Rico will double every week.
Public health officials also warned of a possible Zika outbreak in the U.S. Currently, there is no Zika vaccine, but trials for one will likely start in September.
In the meantime, the CDC recommends that all people, especially pregnant women, try to avoid mosquito bites. If you plan to travel to a Zika-affected region, visit the CDC website to stay current on travel information.
If you have any concern that you might have been exposed to Zika, call your health care provider to discuss whether you should be tested. You can find a Providence provider here.