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Research Strengthens Link Between Zika, Birth Defects

A scientist displays Aedes aegypti mosquitoes inside the International Atomic Energy Agency's insect pest control laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, Feb. 10, 2016.
A scientist displays Aedes aegypti mosquitoes inside the International Atomic Energy Agency's insect pest control laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, Feb. 10, 2016.

A report in the New England Journal of Medicine presents new evidence strengthening the link between the Zika virus and an increase in certain birth defects.

The report published Wednesday by a group of Slovenian researchers was accompanied by an editorial by a group of U.S. health experts who support the conclusions made by the Slovenian study.

Professor Tatjana Avsic Zupanc, who headed the study at University Medical Center in Ljubljana, told Reuters that her team's findings may provide the most compelling evidence yet that birth defects associated with the Zika virus may be caused by replication of the virus in the brain.

The study centered on an expectant mother who was infected with the Zika virus and aborted the fetus after an ultrasound showed signs of severe fetal abnormalities.

The study said the mother had no family history of such abnormalities and had not been exposed to any other viruses and other infections known to cause such abnormalities.

The doctors in the study performed an autopsy on the fetus and were able to identify the complete genetic sequence of the Zika virus. They also noted that the virus had only attacked the brain and no other fetal organs.

The researchers said the brain tissue of the fetus was found to have a high level of Zika virus RNA, in addition to containing a complete Zika genome sequence -- two findings that present "strong evidence" that Zika caused the abnormalities.

But the researchers noted that further study should be done to confirm a link.

Growing concern over Zika

The Zika virus has risen in prominence with news that Brazil has seen a rise in cases of microcephaly, or underdeveloped brains, in newborns that coincides with the rise in Zika virus infections.

Some health experts are recommending pregnant women, or women trying to get pregnant, avoid travel to Brazil -- which is preparing to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

U.S. public health officials testifying before congressional committees Wednesday said much of the anti-Zika effort must focus on mosquito control. They said southern parts of the United States, as well as the territory of Puerto Rico harbor the mosquito that spreads the virus and are vulnerable to outbreaks of the disease.

Dozens of global health professionals — including researchers, academic journals and funding organizations — have committed to sharing data on the virus.

In a statement released Wednesday and signed by more than 30 organizations, the groups say they want to ensure that any information relevant to combating Zika is made freely and openly available to the international community as “soon as is feasibly possible.”

Signatories include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, PLOS (Public Library of Science), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (along with the Chinese equivalent), the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Network, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Researchers who signed the agreement were assured that their work would still be eligible for publication in science journals.

Signs and symptoms of the Zika virus include fever, rash, headache, conjunctivitis and pain in the joints, muscles, and eyes. It usually results in mild illness, but the virus poses a greater danger to pregnant women because of the possible link to birth defects.

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