By now we're all well aware of how dangerous the Zika virus can be if it infects a pregnant woman. Refresher: The virus has been linked to microcephaly, a disorder that causes a baby to be born with an abnormally small head. It can also be transmitted sexually, so women who have male partners who have been to an infected area should avoid unprotected sex during pregnancy.
There's been speculation that Zika might be riskier for women who are in their first trimesters, a period of essential development for the fetus, but according to a recent study, the virus should be avoided at all costs during the entire duration of pregnancy.
According to researchers, two babies of mothers who had been infected died just before they should have been born. The researchers also found a host of other defects that can come along with the virus—the effect is so strong, they've developed a name for them: Zika virus congenital syndrome. This can cause eye and brain defects.
Lab tests found that the virus can go straight to developing brain cells. Though the virus was once thought to be a mild one, scientists have reason to believe that, for pregnant women and their babies, the effects can be devastating—even fatal.
"Despite mild clinical symptoms, Zika virus infection during pregnancy appears to be associated with grave outcomes, including fetal death, placental insufficiency, fetal growth restriction, and central nervous system injury," the researchers wrote in their report, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. "There's more than microcephaly. There is a spectrum of disease."
"We saw problems with the fetus or the pregnancy at eight weeks, 22 weeks, 25 weeks, and we saw problems at 35 weeks," Karin Nielsen, M.D., who helped organize the study, said.
"Even if the fetus isn't affected the virus appears to damage the placenta, which can lead to fetal death," Nielsen told NBC News. "Any woman with Zika virus should be handled as a high-risk pregnancy,"
Though researchers had once predicted that the effects would be the most severe during the first trimester of pregnancy, recent research shows something different. "We know when the infection is taking place," Dr. Nielsen said. "We can associate that with weeks of gestation, so we can know if there are any malformations, what time they happened—we can associate them with a first trimester, second trimester, and third trimester infection."
It's incredibly important that if you've been infected, have traveled to one of the areas that's been hit with microcephaly or have been sexually active with someone who has visited one of these places, you speak with your doctor.