Microcephaly isn’t the only thing to have on our radar.
In the recent weeks, the news has been flooded with pictures and reports of babies with abnormally small skulls and brains caused by microcephaly and its ties to the Zika virus epidemic.
Now, the first evidence has surfaced that the virus may also cause Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), which is a severe neurological disease that leads to temporary paralysis and even death in about 5 percent of the cases.
Although GBS is relatively rare, new research provides solid evidence that the Zika virus could cause GBS. The scientists analyzed blood samples taken from patients during the Zika outbreak in French Polynesia from 2013 to 2014.
The results suggest that GBS could develop in 24 out of every 100,000 cases of Zika.
"This is the first study to look at a large number of patients who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome following Zika virus infection and provide evidence that Zika virus can cause GBS," said epidemiologist and lead author Arnaud Fontanet in a press release.
"Most of the patients with GBS reported they had experienced symptoms of Zika virus infection on average six days before any neurological symptoms, and all carried Zika virus antibodies."
The scientists examined the samples of 42 patients diagnosed with GBS during the Zika outbreak and found that 41 of them (98 percent) carried Zika virus antibodies, and all 42 patients had neutralizing antibodies against the Zika virus.
On the contrary, in a control group that didn’t show any symptoms of Zika, only 54 percent of the patients carried Zika-neutralizing antibodies.
However, let’s not freak out that the current Zika outbreak in the South and North Americas will lead to cases of GBS because the researchers say there’s no way of telling. It is a possibility though, they say.
"Although it is unknown whether attack rates of Zika virus epidemics will be as high in affected regions in Latin America [as] in the Pacific Islands, high numbers of cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome might be expected in the coming months as the result of this association," said Fontanet.
"The results of our study support that Zika virus should be added to the list of infectious pathogens susceptible to cause Guillain-Barré syndrome."
Notably, there appear to be two different strains of the Zika virus — one originating in Africa and one in Asia. The outbreak in Brazil seems to be from the Asian strain, and an article from Harvard’s School of Public Health says that this strain may have evolved to be better at invading nerve cells or evading the immune system.
Experts warn that we shouldn’t necessarily take the study’s findings, which are published in The Lancet, as a prediction of other Zika outbreaks until we know more about the virus.
"A little caution should be taken because the data are still scarce and we do not know whether the current Zika virus is identical to that in previous outbreaks, whether it will behave exactly the same in a different population with a different genetic and immunity background, or whether a cofactor or co-infection is responsible," researchers David W Smith and John Mackenzie from the University of Western Australia and Curtin University, who were not involved with the research, wrote in a commentary on the study.
Nonetheless, it seems like the more we learn about the Zika virus, the worse it gets. Fingers crossed that future research continues to smooth out the unknown about the virus and brings us to a swift solution.