WASHINGTON, DC –– Following warnings that the Zika virus is more dangerous than originally thought, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the link between Zika and microcephaly and said Puerto Rico could see “hundreds of thousands of cases” of the virus.
Wednesday’s confirmation of the link with microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with abnormally small heads, made Zika the first mosquito-borne illness to cause microcephaly, and the first infectious cause of microcephaly to be identified in more than 50 years, according to the CDC.
Speaking ahead of the announcement, Dr Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the CDC, said: “Most of what we’ve learned is not reassuring.
“Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought.”
Dr Schuchat revealed that in addition to the smaller brain size caused by microcephaly, the virus has been linked to a broader array of birth defects throughout a longer period of pregnancy, including premature birth and blindness.
And while doctors have known for years that the Zika virus is associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the body attacks its own nerves, causing paralysis, a study released on Monday also links Zika to a second autoimmune disorder called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADE).
ADE resembles multiple sclerosis and involves a swelling of the brain and spinal cord.
New studies also show that the Zika virus appears to hone in on brain cells and kill them.
Researchers still don’t know how many babies of women infected with Zika will end up with birth defects, or what drugs and vaccines may be effective, moreover.
According to Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “This is a very unusual virus that we can’t pretend to know everything about it that we need to know.
“I’m not an alarmist and most of you who know me know that I am not, but the more we learn about the neurological aspects, the more we look around and say this is very serious,” he said.
Dr Fauci’s assessment, delivered to reporters at the White House on Monday, comes the week after the White House informed Congress it was moving more than US$510 million previously earmarked to combat Ebola in Africa to Zika prevention efforts closer to home.
“What I’ve done is take money from other areas of non-Zika research to start. We couldn’t just stop and wait for the money,” Fauci said. “When the president asked [Congress] for $1.9 billion, we needed $1.9 billion.”
Meanwhile, the CDC announced on Monday that it was providing $3.9 million in emergency Zika funding to Puerto Rico, saying the number of cases there is doubling every week and could reach into the hundreds of thousands. The money will go to increased laboratory capacity.
“We are quite concerned about Puerto Rico, where the virus is spreading throughout the island,” Dr Schuchat said. “We think there could be hundreds of thousands of cases of Zika virus in Puerto Rico and perhaps hundreds of affected babies.”
A previous report indicated that tens of thousands of intra-uterine devices (IUDs), contraceptive implants and other forms of birth control are urgently needed in Puerto Rico to help prevent unintended pregnancies during the current Zika outbreak.
According to CDC officials, an estimated 138,000 young Puerto Rican women, or one in five women of child-bearing age, do not want to get pregnant, but are not using effective birth control.
The reasons given are usually that they can’t afford it, their clinics don’t stock it, or their doctors aren’t trained in providing it.
Last month, the American island territory issued an administrative order freezing the price of condoms, fearing vendors might take advantage of Zika fears to hike prices.
CDC officials said that 68,000 IUDs, 33,000 implants, and many more other birth control products will be needed over a year.
According to Dr Denise Jamieson of the CDC’s Zika Virus Response Team, federal agencies are exploring other ways to get birth control supplies for Puerto Rico, expand public education efforts, and improve reimbursement and training for doctors in use of IUDs and other birth control methods.