New research has found evidence of the Zika virus in the brain tissue of a fetus with microcephaly, providing support for a link between the mosquito-borne disease and a birth defect that causes small heads and underdeveloped brains. According to an editorial that accompanied the study, both published online February 10, 2016 in The New England Journal of Medicine, the new findings strengthen but do not prove the association. Editorial author Eric Rubin, Irene Heinz Given Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and co-authors note that causation can be difficult to prove in cases of rare and untreatable illness such as microcephaly. They write that researchers often must rely on scientific and epidemiologic evidence.
In the studied case, the fetus had been carried by a 25-year-old European woman who was living in Brazil during her pregnancy and developed symptoms compatible with Zika. She terminated her pregnancy after learning that the fetus was microcephalic. Researchers examined the fetal brain tissue and found that it contained particles consistent with Zika virus and a large amount of viral genomic RNA similar to that of other recent Zika virus samples. They did not find any evidence of other genetic abnormalities or pathogens that might have caused the microcephaly.
Rubin and his co-authors note that more research is needed to understand Zika, but that actions can immediately be taken in affected areas including controlling for mosquitoes and increasing access to health care services for women and children.
“Coming shortly after the global response to the Ebola virus, the rapid spread of the Zika virus reminds us how connected we all are,” they write. “Once again, an outbreak is going to challenge our public health infrastructure and require a substantial response.”
Read NEJM editorial: Zika Virus and Microcephaly
Read Wall Street Journal coverage: New Study Links Zika Virus to Microcephaly
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