New studies question the assumed relationship between Zika and a birth defect that causes abnormally small heads

By Stephanie Petit
Updated June 30, 2016 11:10 AM
Credit: Mario Tama/Getty

New findings suggest that infants who were not born with microcephaly could still have developmental issues due to the Zika virus.

Studies published in the medical journal The Lancet on Wednesday found that many babies with the Zika virus do not have microcelphaly – a birth defect characterized by an abnormally small head – but still experience developmental delays.

Researchers in one study examined children whose mothers had the Zika virus. Of the 1,500 babies studies, one in five born with Zika had normal head sizes.

In another study, the brains of three infants who died from Zika-related microcephaly and fetal tissue from two pregnancies that ended in miscarriage due to the Zika virus. Researchers found the virus affects brain tissue by causing cell death, abnormal calcium deposits and physical deformities.

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“I’m afraid the more we learn the nastier the Zika virus is,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News. “It s quite evident that the Zika virus, if it gets into a pregnant woman, can get into the placenta and into the baby and it gets right into the brain cells.”

Schaffner said other birth defects – including those that affect sight and hearing – can be present if brain development is affected in utero.

He echoes concerns voiced by Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, at a White House press briefing in April.

“Most of what we’ve learned is not reassuring. Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought,” said Schuchat.

Zika is a concern for many athletes heading to the Olympics in Rio this summer. A total of 7,232 Zika cases were registered in Rio in February, according to CNN. Due to cooling temperatures, 702 cases were confirmed in Rio in May. John Speraw, the coach of the men’s indoor volleyball team, is freezing his sperm as a precaution.

“My wife and I would like to have another kid. And I’m no spring chicken. I don’t want to get Zika and have to wait an additional year, or whatever it may be, for us to have kids,” Speraw told the New York Times. “I’m paying attention to Zika and I’m concerned about it. It’s not going to stop me from going down there, but I’m taking measures right now.”