Data from several clinical studies in Brazil establish a strong link between infection of pregnant women with Zika virus and a variety of birth defects collectively called congenital Zika syndrome.
In the latest study conducted in Rio de Janeiro, the authors enrolled 88 pregnant women who had a rash in the previous 5 days. Of the 88 subjects, 72 tested positive for Zika virus by PCR. Fetal ultrasound was performed in 42 of the Zika virus positive women, and in all the Zika virus negative women.
The results are convincing: fetal abnormalities were detected in 12 of the 42 Zika virus positive women (29%) and in none of the Zika virus negative women.
The abnormalities include fetal death (2), microcephaly (5), ventricular calcification or other central nervous system lesions (7), and abnormal amniotic fluid volume or cerebral or umbilical artery flow (7). These observations show that Zika virus infection may lead to birth defects other than microcephaly.
The infections of these pregnant women with Zika virus took place throughout pregnancy, from week 8 to week 35. This window of susceptibility is in contrast to rubella virus which is more likely to cause birth defects when infection occurs in the first trimester.
Not all Zika virus infections seem to cause birth defects – 29% in this study. If this number holds outside of Rio de Janeiro, then birth defects should also be observed in other countries with high rates of infection. Only 20% of Zika virus infections are symptomatic, and it will be important to determine if these also lead to congenital Zika syndrome.
The increase in microcephaly associated with Zika virus infection was first noted in the northeast of Brazil. This study was done with women who live in Rio de Janeiro, in the southeast of Brazil, showing that the association is not geographically limited.
It has been suggested that fetal defects might be partly due to the presence of antibodies to dengue virus that cross-react with Zika virus and cause immune-mediated enhancement of disease. Thirty-one percent of the Zika virus positive women in this study were also positive for antibodies to dengue virus, but the paper does not report how these correlate with fetal defects.
These findings, together with results of previous studies showing recovery of the entire Zika virus genome from amniotic fluid or from fetal brain, demonstrate that this fast spreading and newly emerging virus infection is clearly a threat to the developing fetus.
We should not be surprised that a virus that had until recently only infected several thousand individuals, and which we believed caused a mild, self-limiting rash, suddenly is found to be extremely dangerous to the developing fetus. The potential for fetal damage was likely always present, but unobserved until the virus was introduced into a large population of susceptible individuals and hundreds of thousands of individuals were infected. The lesson to be learned, often easily forgotten, is that we should always expect more from viruses than we initially observe. Such was certainly the case for HIV-1; immunodeficiency was only the tip of the clinical syndrome caused by infection.
Given the pace at which Zika virus is racing through susceptible humans, it is likely to generate enough population immunity in the next five years to curtail this outbreak. However as susceptible individuals are born and accumulate, regular outbreaks will likely occur. Similarly, outbreaks of rubella virus in the US occurred every 5-6 years in the pre-vaccine era.
Not only do rubella and Zika viruses cause similar fetal and placental abnormalities, in the mother they both lead to rash, joint pain, skin itching, and lymphadenopathy without high fever.
Hopefully the similarities between rubella virus and Zika virus will stop there: it took nearly 30 years to develop a rubella virus vaccine after the discovery that infection caused birth defects.