In DepthInfectious Disease

Evidence grows for Zika virus as pregnancy danger

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Science  11 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6278, pp. 1123-1124
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6278.1123

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Since late last year when physicians in Brazil warned that a wave of serious birth defects might be linked to a little-known virus called Zika, researchers have struggled to prove the connection. Some in the media have questioned whether the reported increase in birth defects is real; others, particularly environmental activists, have suggested the virus is an innocent bystander, unfairly blamed for defects caused by chemicals or other factors. With three studies published last week, chances that the virus has been wrongly accused are fading. Two independent groups showed that, at least in the lab, the virus eagerly infects developing brain cells, suggesting a mechanism by which it could cause the most striking of the observed birth defects: microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and brains. A third study, following several dozen pregnant women in Brazil who were infected with the virus, directly links the infection to an increase in brain defects. It also suggests that the virus can harm a developing fetus in other ways, possibly by attacking the placenta and slowing down the supply of nutrients. "These are the data we have been waiting for," says Daniel Lucey, an expert on global health at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.