A new study published Tuesday examined the brains of 45 Brazilian babies whose mothers were infected with the Zika virus during their pregnancy and found incredible damage.
Researchers scanned babies’ brains to determine how the virus affected them. They found that Zika does far more damage to the brain than previously believed, targeting the parts of the brain that facilitate communication between the two hemispheres.
Zika creates clumps of calcium around blood vessels in the infant’s brain, which prevents parts of the brain from forming normally, and physically blocks or destroys connections to other areas of the brain. Zika tends to target the cerebellum and the basal ganglia, inhibiting movement, balance, speech and emotion.
“The brain that should be there is not there,” Dr. Deborah Levine, one of the study’s authors and radiologist at Harvard University Medical School, told The New York Times.“The abnormalities that we see in the brain suggest a very early disruption of the brain development process.”
Most of the babies in the study had less visible, but no less serious, damage in the part of the brain that controls learning, memory and coordination. This suggests that Zika-infected babies who don’t have obvious initial symptoms may develop problems as they grow.
Several other babies had parts of their brains become so full of fluid that they “blow up like a balloon,” according to the researchers.
Zika virus infections in pregnant women are directly linked to fetal deaths and and microcephaly, when a baby is born with an abnormally small head, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Three of the babies involved in the study died in their first three days of life, and researchers studied autopsy reports in those cases. Other laboratory studies confirmed the presence of Zika virus in the blood, tissue, brains and amniotic fluid of fetuses and babies diagnosed with microcephaly.
There have now been 12 confirmed cases of babies born with Zika-related microcephaly in the United States, and more than 400 pregnant women in the continental U.S. have evidence of Zika infection. Brazil currently has more than 1,800 cases of microcephaly.
There are currently 2,260 cases of Zika virus confirmed in the continental U.S., as well as another 8,035 in American territories, according to the CDC’s most recent update, published last Wednesday. The domestic American cases include 22 believed to be the result of sexual transmission, one that was the result of laboratory exposure, plus 14 new cases from local mosquitoes. The vast majority of the cases were from people who traveled to a Zika-prone country, such as Brazil.
Zika virus is spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which also spread several other dangerous tropical diseases. Mosquitoes kill more people than humans kill, and are the most deadly insects on the planet.
Army medical researchers announced earlier this month that a Zika virus vaccine was successfully tested on monkeys and human trials are expected soon.
Florida is the first U.S. state to report locally transmitted Zika cases. Federal and state health officials have already directed pregnant women to avoid parts of Miami where Zika transmissions have been reported, and they are distributing kits to test for the virus to pregnant women in Florida.
Officials say that 479 Floridians are currently infected with Zika, 63 of whom are pregnant women. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration stopped accepting blood donations from the Miami-area in late July, except for donors who are screened for the virus.
State and federal health officials have issued a travel notice, warning pregnant women to stay away from certain areas of downtown Miami after Florida officials announced 10 more people had contracted Zika virus from local mosquitoes.
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