Thousands of babies in Brazil have been born with birth defects linked to an outbreak of Zika virus, prompting calls for accelerated vaccine development. Meanwhile, in Europe, another virus continues to pose a serious threat to babies if pregnant women are infected.
Close to 4,000 babies in Brazil have been born with cases of microcephaly (abnormally small head size), according to the World Health Organisation. In the state of Pernambuco, one of the worst-hit areas, that translates as between 1% and 2% of all births.
Experts are still unsure if and how the virus may be causing these severe birth defects. Other diseases, such as dengue fever, are transmitted by the same mosquito but cannot be passed from mother to baby in the womb.
Still, the increase in the number of cases of Zika and the surge in birth defects is cause for concern, with the WHO predicting that the disease would continue to spread across the Americas – including to the US.
In Brazil alone the number potentially affected could be in the tens of thousands. There are also concerns about the broad social impact: a sudden dip in birth rate, rising numbers of illegal abortions, and parents abandoning disabled babies.
US President Barack Obama has called for more research into vaccines, treatments and better diagnostic tests.
There are currently no treatments for Zika fever which is usually a mild illness – apart from its devastating impact on unborn babies.
Race against time
The sudden scramble for a vaccine against Zika virus is somewhat reminiscent of how the Ebola outbreak was a catalyst for vaccine research against that disease.
Dengue fever may be attracting fewer headlines at present but an increase in cases of that disease sparked strong interest in vaccine development some years ago. Brazil was one of the first countries to approve the new dengue fever vaccine, recognising the seriousness of the disease which is endemic in Latin America as well as much of Asia and Africa.
Now attention has turned to Zika fever but experts say it could take anything from three to 10 years before a vaccine becomes available. As was the case when concern rose about Ebola, vaccine developers are rampuing up efforts to develop a vaccine.
The fear now is that Zika virus could become a serious problem in those countries where dengue is a major public health challenge. Around half the world’s population live in areas which are high-risk for dengue.
Europe is not considered a high-risk area for mosquito-borne illnesses (notwithstanding the 2012 outbreak of dengue fever on the Portuguese island of Madeira).
But the Zika outbreak threatens to damage millions of lives and, as the birth defects associated with Zika are linked to infection in the early stages of pregnancy, it may even make travel less appealing to younger people: women could be infected before they are even aware that they are pregnant.
However, there is a disease present in Europe which causes severe birth defects if pregnant women are infected. It’s called rubella.
Up to 85% of babies born to mothers who had rubella shortly before or in early pregnancy may develop health problems known as congenital rubella syndrome (CRS).
Thankfully, there is a vaccine against rubella – the MMR.
Make sure you are up to date: speak to your doctor to ensure you are protected before becoming pregnant.