How a rash can turn into something so devastating: Zika’s effects on babies

Vicky Ramirez

Consultant, USAID ASSIST Project/URC

Andrew Gall

Improvement Advisor, USAID ASSIST Project/URC

In 4 out of 5 people, a Zika infection will have zero signs. In some, it can trigger mild symptoms such as a rash and conjunctivitis, but for a fetus—it can affect him for the rest of his life.

In this powerful piece from Health Worker Week, we take a first-hand look at the experiences of nurses working on the frontlines of the Zika epidemic. You witness the tragedy it is for the parents, the nurses who have to care for the babies with microcephaly and other birth defects—but what makes this piece so poignant is the pain of the baby. They have to be handled with extreme care. Their pain is evident.

But what is causing all the physical pain? In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers interviewed 345 women in Brazil and uncovered medical complications as a result of Zika that go well beyond microcephaly.

Of the pregnant women who tested positive for Zika, 46 percent showed adverse outcomes. These include miscarriages, stillbirths, as well as fetal and brain abnormalities, impaired growth, joints with limited motion, and muscle issues.

In some cases, researchers found fetal growth restriction, which means the fetus is not able to develop properly within the womb and is born much smaller than normal. Due to the impact on their central nervous system, doctors have also found that Zika-affected babies may face vision and hearing problems, be susceptible to seizures, and have difficulties eating.

And although the initial epidemic is over, most experts agree that Zika is already endemic, just like dengue and chikungunya, with infections peaking each year during the warmer, wetter months. So, what’s the good news?

  • Researchers, health care professionals, and public officials are learning more and more about Zika every day. You can see the progress on the Zika Communication Network—a great portal crowdsourcing up-to-date reliable resources from a wide variety of organizations.
  • Mosquito and sexual transmission of the virus can be prevented by individuals.
  • Doctors and nurses are learning how to screen and educate expecting mothers about Zika and complications. As part of the Zika epidemic response, the USAID ASSIST Project has been providing technical assistance to the Ministry of Health in five countries.
  • Communities can take collective action to mitigate Zika outbreaks and care for affected babies and families.

Moreover, health program implementers are rapidly developing innovative approaches to confronting Zika in affected areas and are conveying new scientific knowledge to communities, health care professionals, and governments every day. Researchers are working feverishly to develop a Zika vaccine, and already have one vaccine candidate that is in Phase 2 (out of 3) of clinical trials. An effective Zika vaccine would be a global game changer that could lead to the elimination or eradication of the virus, thus preventing future harm to babies and families.

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