Texas recently became the second state to confirm a local transmission of the Zika virus, and the news comes at the heels of a disturbing new study showing babies infected by the virus that appear healthy at birth may develop defects as they grow older.
The case in Texas, found in a non-pregnant female in Brownsville, was not surprising. It was only a matter of time before we saw local transmission of the virus in our backyard. Zika transmission has been reported in multiple communities on the Mexican side of the border. More cases are expected, but Texas health officials don’t believe the virus will become widespread.
We know pregnant women are the greatest concern because of the devastating birth defects that can be caused by the virus, including microcephaly, or an unusually small head due to abnormal brain development. But we’re starting to learn more about its effects. This week U.S. and Brazilian researchers found that some babies who are infected with Zika and normal-looking at birth can develop microcephaly later on — five months to a year after birth.
Most of the babies in the study showed significant abnormalities in their brain scans. As they grew older, their brains did not develop enough for their age and body size. Researchers aren’t sure why these babies’ brains didn’t grow normally, but they think it could be that necessary pathways and hormones responsible for brain growth weren’t there anymore.
They also began to show signs of what’s called congenital Zika syndrome around one year of age — things like epileptic seizures, muscle and joint problems and difficulty with swallowing food. The good news is most of them did show good head control and social interaction skills like smiling and making eye contact.
Many of my patients are concerned about Zika, but people should not be panicked about it. The best defense against Zika is learning about prevention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have great information about Zika prevention on their website.
Here are some key points to keep in mind:
• Currently, no vaccine exists to prevent Zika.
• You should protect yourself from mosquito bites by using insect repellent and taking steps to control mosquitoes inside and outside your home.
• Mosquitoes that spread Zika virus also spread dengue and chikungunya viruses.
• The virus can be sexually transmitted.
• The virus can cause fever, rashes, joint pain and red eyes, but most infected people don’t experience symptoms.
• Testing is recommended for anyone with at least three of those symptoms and for all pregnant women who have traveled to an area with active Zika transmission.