GEORGIA, United States, Thursday June 15, 2017 – With the rainy season bringing an increase of disease-carrying mosquitoes across the region, data out of the United States showing that Zika-related birth defects can occur if a woman is infected at any stage of pregnancy comes as unwelcome news.
More than 120 babies were born with Zika-related birth defects in the US territories – including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands – during the 15 months since Zika became a public health concern, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last week. This represented about five percent of all babies born to women there with confirmed cases of the virus.
The mosquito-borne disease, which is also sexually transmitted, is of greatest concern to pregnant women because of the catastrophic consequences it can have on a foetus.
The CDC data, covering “the largest number of completed pregnancies with laboratory confirmation of Zika virus infection to date,” were collected from the US territories of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Marshall Islands and the US Virgin Islands.
This is the first such CDC report about how the virus has affected pregnant women and their babies in those areas.
For the study, 3,900 women with possible Zika infections were followed between January 1, 2016, and April 25, 2017. Of those, 2,549 delivered babies in that time. Of the women who carried to term, 1,508 had confirmed infections, and 122 of those had babies obviously affected by the Zika virus.
While eight percent of the birth defects occurred when women were infected during the first trimester, the numbers were not much better for those infected later in their pregnancies.
Five percent of women diagnosed in their second trimesters and four percent of those in the third trimester also gave birth to babies suffering the devastating effects of Zika.
Worse yet, the effects of Zika during pregnancy are not always obvious at birth, according to Acting CDC Director Dr Anne Schuchat, who explained that babies may initially look normal but go on to develop signs of Zika complications such as small heads or vision and hearing problems.
According to the CDC, this is the first report with sufficient numbers of Zika virus infections identified during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy to develop preliminary estimates of risk for each trimester.
The governor of Puerto Rico recently announced that the Zika “epidemic” was over, citing only 10 new cases since the end of April.
But while agreeing that the disease “went up and has come down,” Schuchat stressed that the CDC was not changing its travel guidance to the territory.
“We are pleased that the incidence of new cases in Puerto Rico is low at this point, but we continue to urge pregnant women not to travel to areas where Zika is still spreading, and that includes Puerto Rico,” she said.
The virus is still said to be circulating in Belize, Barbados, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Marshall Islands and Venezuela.