Zika Virus Linked to Temporary Paralysis, New Study Suggests – What You Need to Know

Patients stricken with Guillain-Barré suffer a sudden onset of weakness in the limbs followed by total body paralysis

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty

New research has led to evidence that the Zika virus can cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, a severe neurological disorder that causes temporary paralysis.

A study published Monday in the medical journal The Lancet presented the strongest evidence yet that the mosquito-borne virus can trigger the disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves.

Patients stricken with Guillain-Barré suffer a sudden onset of weakness and tingling in the arms and legs followed by total body paralysis. Paralysis manifests over 1-3 weeks, at the end of which 5 percent of patients die and 20 percent of patients are left with a significant disability, according to a study commentary.

There is no known cure for the syndrome, but several treatments can ease symptoms and reduce the duration of the illness, according to the Mayo Clinic. Many patients suffering from the syndrome require use of a ventilator to keep breathing.

The study examined 42 cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome that were diagnosed during a Zika outbreak in French Polynesia that occurred between 2013 and 2014. Scientists estimated that 66 percent of the territory’s population was infected. Researchers found Zika-neutralizing antibodies in the blood of all 42 patients, compared with about half in the study’s control group of patients hospitalized for other reasons.

Thirty-eight percent of the Guillain-Barré patients examined had to be admitted to the intensive care unit and 12 percent required breathing assistance. If Guillain-Barré spreads in Zika’s wake through the Americas in the same manner it did French Polynesia, existing health systems may be unable to meet the needs of all patients requiring intensive care and ventilators.

“Because Zika virus is spreading rapidly across the Americas, at risk countries need to prepare for adequate intensive care beds capacity to manage patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome,” the study says.

More than 30 countries and territories in the Americas are now experiencing Zika outbreaks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised pregnant women to delay travel to these areas because of Zika’s suspected link to the rare birth defect microcephaly.

Although the link between the virus and the birth defect that causes a small head and underdeveloped brain is still being investigated, World Health Organization officials have said the virus should be “presumed guilty until proven innocent.”

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