Everything Pregnancy

Study Confirms Zika Virus Causes Brain Damage in Developing Babies

Zika does cause brain damage in developing babies, but not enough people know this or other key facts about the virus.

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A study out of Helsinki, Finland, confirms what we have now suspected for some time: the Zika virus does cause brain damage in developing babies if a pregnant mom is infected.

What researchers found was that small amounts of genetic material from the virus can actually be detected via a blood sample taken from a pregnant woman, even weeks after she displays symptoms, such as a rash. Unfortunately, this is the time when brain damage is already occurring in the fetus.

Further, through neuroimaging, researchers can see the severe abnormalities even before microcephaly could have been detected.

Alarmingly, this study also found the virus is mutating from its first form. "Some of these mutations may be associated with the adaptations of the virus to the fetal brain," lead researcher Olli Vapalahti, professor of zoonotic virology at the University of Helsinki, explained.

The study adds to a growing body of research finding Zika can cause grave birth defects and even fetal death if a woman is infected during pregnancy, at any stage of gestation. And yet, a poll conducted by the National Public Health Information Coalition revealed Americans are shockingly unaware of key facts about the virus, even in households where a woman is pregnant or planning to have a baby.

In the national poll, 1,275 adults were surveyed, 105 of whom lived in a home with an expectant woman or a woman who is considering a pregnancy in the next 12 months. Here is what researchers found, according to Science Daily:

  • Approximately one in four are not aware of the association between the Zika virus and the birth defect microcephaly.
  • One in five believe, incorrectly, that there is a vaccine to protect against Zika virus.
  • Approximately 2 in 5 do not realize Zika virus can be sexually transmitted.
  • A quarter think individuals infected with Zika virus are "very likely" to show symptoms.

Let's set the record straight: Although the virus can cause symptoms ranging from a fever to a rash, pink eye, and joint pain, not everyone who contracts it will get sick. No vaccine exists at this time, and indeed, researchers believe the virus can be transmitted sexually, leading the CDC to release guidelines for pregnant women and couples who are TTC.

Meanwhile, the poll also found many people believe if a woman contracts the virus while she is not pregnant, future pregnancies may be adversely affected. But according to the CDC, "Zika virus infection in a woman who is not pregnant would not pose a risk for birth defects in future pregnancies after the virus has cleared from her blood." This process takes about a week.

"We have a key window before the mosquito season gears up in communities within the United States mainland to correct misperceptions about Zika virus so that pregnant women and their partners may take appropriate measures to protect their families," said Gillian SteelFisher, director of the poll and research scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard Chan School.

Do you feel you know enough about Zika?

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.