The threat of the mosquito-borne Zika virus reaching the U.S. last year thankfully never approached our worst fears, with only a few locally spread cases seen in Texas and Florida. But a new report released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease and Prevention reveals that there were still young victims.
Collaborating with local and state health departments, the agency found that 1,297 pregnant women, located across 44 states, were suspected of contracting Zika during their pregnancy from January to December 2016. Of the 972 women who went on to give birth, 51, or 5 percent, delivered children stricken with Zika-associated birth defects. After only including women confirmed to have Zika through laboratory tests, the rate of birth defects rose to one in every ten births.
"The number of pregnant women with laboratory evidence of possible recent Zika virus infection and the number of fetuses/infants with Zika virus–associated birth defects continues to increase in the United States," the researchers concluded.
Compared to the pre-Zika era, they estimated that the risk of associated birth defects shot up by more than thirty-fold among women infected with Zika at any point during the pregnancy. Reaffirming previous research, though, the risk seemed to get even higher the earlier the infection happened.
While microcephaly, or having a smaller-than-normal head, has become the symbol of Zika's impact on newborns, researchers have since documented a still incomplete laundry list of problems the virus is capable of causing — from hidden brain damage to frozen-in-place joints and blindness. In adults, Zika largely passes through without incident, with 80 percent not even experiencing any flu-like symptoms. But a rare few have also suffered an autoimmune disorder called Guillain Barre Syndrome, which can lead to muscle weakness, pain and even paralysis for months.
This upcoming May will mark the two-year anniversary of the first reported cases of Zika recorded within South America. Since then, the virus has spread rapidly across the Americas through the Aedes mosquito, and sometimes through sexual contact. In the U.S., however, the vast majority of cases were first contracted overseas during travel.
In the current tally, only one-fourth of U.S. infants born to women suspected to have Zika were given brain imaging tests after birth, meaning it's still possible we might be underestimating the harm Zika may have caused. Testing and keeping track of these children will be the only way to "ensure that appropriate clinical services are available," the researchers advised.
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