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Health Team

Scientists reach consensus on Zika, birth defects link

Posted April 1

The World Health Organization says there is now scientific consensus for the link between the Zika virus and the birth defect microcephaly.

A recent study found Zika infection during pregnancy appears to increase the risk for several types of birth defects and miscarriages. The study showed the virus has been found in the brains of affected babies.

A local researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a world renowned expert on Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.

Last year's outbreaks of Zika in Latin America and the Caribbean Island was the first most people heard of the mosquito-borne disease.

"Zika's not a new virus," said Helen Lazear, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine. "This is a virus that we've known about for almost 70 years."

However, Lazear said it was limited to small outbreaks in the south Pacific. The virus was not associated with serious disease in humans until last year, beginning in Brazil, when Zika was first linked to microcephaly in babies born to women infected during pregnancy.

Lazear said she doesn't know if microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with very small heads and brain damage, is new to this outbreak.

"We don't know if there's something different happening in this outbreak or if it's just now that we have a large enough outbreak that we can detect something that maybe happened all along," Lazear said.

She says researchers want to know whether all pregnant women infected through a mosquito bite have birth defects, or if not, who may be more susceptible and if there are other risk factors.

In her UNC lab, Lazear uses Zika virus samples to learn more about the disease. She says work is underway to develop a vaccine—especially for pregnant women and women about to become pregnant.

It will take years to develop, partly because of the difficulty in testing a vaccine on women who are most at risk.

"And it's challenging to test new vaccines and anti-virals in pregnant women," Lazear said. "Those trials are very difficult to do. There's a lot of ethical considerations."

Even though the Zika virus has not been detected in mosquitoes in the United States, mosquito breeds capable of carrying and transmitting the virus are already in the country. Lazear said economic and lifestyle factors in the U.S. make an outbreak similar to the one in Latin America unlikely.

The use of repellants and basic mosquito avoidance measures will also reduce the risk of any mosquito borne diseases, Lazear said.

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