The Zika virus is currently spreading around the world, and health officials are understandably concerned. Pregnant mothers infected with the mosquito-borne virus are giving birth to babies with abnormally shrunken heads – a condition known as microcephaly – and the virus is thought to be to blame. Now, a new study published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases has revealed that a stillborn child may have been the result of a mid-pregnancy Zika infection.
Although the link between the disease and microcephaly has yet to be conclusively proven, evidence is certainly accumulating. Recently, researchers found the complete genome of the virus within the brain of a fetus with microcephaly. Disturbingly, the fetal brain was the only place that the genome was found, implying that Zika preferentially infects the brain.
This new, tragic case of a Brazilian woman giving birth to a deceased child serves as another grim piece of evidence that Zika is causing severe neurological damage. The baby was born in January of this year, and was found to have severe tissue swelling, as well as significant central nervous system defects. These defects appeared to result in the complete absence of the two hemispheres of the baby’s brain.
Ultrasound scans of the fetus at 30 weeks. (A) The head (dotted line) can be seen to be abnormally small; (B-D) Arrows indicate several damaged or abnormal nervous system components. Sarno et al./PLOS
The authors of the study conclude with a grim assessment: Zika is not only responsible for microcephaly, but also the near-complete loss of brain tissue (hydranencephaly) and the abnormal accumulation of fluid within the fetus (hydrops fetalis). Although this case is unique at present, and the risk to other pregnant women cannot be estimated just yet, it does show that the virus is potentially a lot worse than most thought.
The 20-year-old mother-to-be in question discovered that her unborn child was severely underweight during an ultrasound scan during the 18th week of pregnancy. Further scans at the 30th week revealed a range of birth defects, and labor was induced two weeks later. Researchers then discovered the presence of the virus within the stillborn child. As is the case in around 73 percent of Zika infections, the mother showed no symptoms of it, such as a rash, a fever, or body aches.
The virus was also the same strain that is currently infecting thousands across Brazil; today, the virus can be found in a wide range of countries, including the U.S., several European nations, and all across South America. At present, there are at least 1.5 million Zika cases in Brazil, a portion of which have appeared to have caused microcephaly in babies.
Only time will tell if other identical cases are observed, but this new stillbirth case may unfortunately represent another horrific way that Zika potentially inflicts harm on people across the world.