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Scientists Inching Closer to Establishing Zika-Microcephaly Link

Gustavo Henrique who is 2-months old and born with microcephaly, reacts to stimulus during an evaluation session with a physiotherapist at the Altino Ventura rehabilitation center in Recife, Brazil, Feb. 11, 2016.

The World Health Organization reports scientists are weeks away from establishing whether a link exists between the Zika virus and microcephaly, which causes brain abnormalities in babies.

The Zika virus does not in itself pose much of a problem. People who become infected develop a rash and a mild fever. They do not die.

But, the World Health Organization recently declared the Zika virus a global public health emergency because of its possible association with an explosive spread of microcephaly in Latin America.

WHO Assistant Director-General Marie-Paule Kieny says evidence is building on the causal link between the Zika virus and brain damage in newborn babies. But, the final word is not yet in.

Microcephaly, illustrated on CDC website
Microcephaly, illustrated on CDC website

“There is a prospective cohort in Colombia of women who are pregnant and have been infected, are known to be infected and the outcome of their pregnancy is being looked at," she said. "So, in a few weeks or months, we will see how many of these women deliver a child with microcephaly and this will make the things much clearer.”

Guillain-Barre Syndrome

Kieny says other studies to establish the link are being done in some of the France's overseas territories and in Cape Verde. She says scientists also are trying to see whether recent cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare disorder that attacks the nervous system, is caused by the Zika virus.

“So, it is a question of a few weeks to have an established link. As we have said there are other causes for Guillain-Barre also, but the association in time and in place makes the association of Guillain-Barre… cases that we see right now with Zika probable.”

Work on vaccines

Kieny says about 15 companies and groups have started work on vaccines and diagnostic tools for the Zika virus. She says two vaccine candidates are well advanced. But, despite encouraging signs, she says large-scale trials on the safety and efficacy of vaccines are at least 18 months away.

She says non-commercial Zika diagnostics are available, but research in this area needs to be urgently stepped up. She says it is likely that the first commercial and independently validated tests for Zika will be on the market in a matter of weeks, not months.

Therapeutics is another area of research. Kieny says studies are being carried out on medicines and other therapies that could prevent infection in vulnerable groups, especially pregnant women.