The mosquito-borne Zika virus doesn’t just pose a risk to unborn fetuses. Children infected with the Zika virus during infancy could be at risk of experiencing brain damage, according to a new study in primates.
Medical experts have long known that Zika can destroy developing brain tissue when it infects a fetus in the womb. But the new study found rhesus macaques monkeys infected with Zika virus at the age of about one month — which corresponds to about 3 months of age in a child — developed troubling brain and behavioral changes, the Scientist reports.
The findings, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, are the first to suggest the virus could pose a significant risk to children.
For the study, Ann Chahroudi, a pediatrician at Emory University in Atlanta, infected six infant macaques with Zika five weeks after birth, and monitored their brain development and behavior for a year. They also tracked two healthy monkeys for comparison.
The researchers found that the virus invaded the peripheral and central nervous systems of the monkeys, causing inflammation and cell death. Six months after exposure, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brains revealed structural and functional differences in regions of the brain involved in processing fear and other emotional responses.
Chahroudi said the findings suggest children infected with Zika should be monitoring and undergo cognitive testing. She acknowledged the long-term impact of infant Zika infection is unclear — for monkeys or human infants — based on one study.
But she said the findings suggest postnatal Zika virus infection may have developmental outcomes “that are apparent long after the virus has cleared from the blood.”
Zika infection during pregnancy is linked with congenital birth defects in about 10 percent of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In 2016, three births per 1,000 in 15 US states and territories had a birth defect that was “possibly associated” with Zika infection, according to a CDC report. But until now, postnatal Zika infection was not widely considered to be a threat to development.
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