WHO and CDC confirm Zika causes birth defects

15 Apr 2016

While it was widely considered to be the case, the spread of the Zika virus from Brazil to other parts of the world has been officially linked to cases of birth defects in babies born to mothers infected with the virus.

Since rapidly spreading to Brazil from a Polynesian island during the 2013 Confederations Cup, the mosquito-borne Zika virus has spread from the South American country to other parts of the world to such an extent that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has ruled it a global health emergency.

In its situation report on the virus, the WHO says that, since its first discovery in 2007, the Zika virus has now been documented in 64 countries, 42 of which have experienced their first outbreak from 2015 onwards.

While the virus itself is not life-threatening in most cases – to the point that some might not even known they have the virus – there had been plausible links between the virus and a rapid rise in the number of cases of microcephaly, a condition that sees babies born with small heads that stop growing after birth.

Given the significant amounts of research that has been put into determining a link between the virus and the condition, the WHO has said: “Based on a growing body of research, there is scientific consensus that Zika virus is a cause of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS).”

Zika link to birth defects now clear

Explaining in greater detail the scientific discovery behind the link, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where much of the leading research is being undertaken, has described this discovery as a “turning point” in the Zika outbreak.

“It is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly,” said Tom Frieden, director of the CDC.

“We are also launching further studies to determine whether children who have microcephaly born to mothers infected by the Zika virus is the tip of the iceberg of what we could see in damaging effects on the brain and other developmental problems.”

However, the CDC report reiterates that this does not mean being infected with the virus will cause birth defects in 100pc of cases, rather that the virus increases the chances considerably.

Additionally, the CDC has emphasised the need for couples – regardless of gender – to take all necessary precautions during sexual activity following yesterday’s confirmation of the first passing of the virus from one male to another.

Mosquito image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic