As babies born with Zika reach the toddler stage, they are continuing to show significant physical and developmental delays, according to the CDC’s latest report.
The virus caused birth defects, including microcephaly – a condition causing abnormally small and misshapen heads – for the babies of some of the pregnant women bitten by infected mosquitoes.
The CDC has followed a group of 19 of those children, who are now approaching two years old.
The challenging road ahead of the Zika babies becomes more clear as they grow and continue to struggle considerably with motor skills, seizures, sleeping, hearing and vision problems, and signs of intellectual impairment, the CDC reported Thursday.
A CDC report on 19 nearly two-year-old children born with Zika-related microcephaly like twins Heloisa (left) and Heloa (right) Barbosa of Brazil, struggle to sit up, eat, breath or sleep, and often suffer from seizures, suggesting that they will need lifelong care
After Zika broke out in French Polynesia, it made its way to Brazil in 2014, running rampant and quickly spreading to other countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, South America and to parts of the US.
Once thought to be a mild, relatively harmless viral infection, scientists eventually linked clusters of children born with microcephaly, among other birth defects, with regions affected by the virus.
Global health agencies have had difficulty nailing down an exact number of babies born with the condition or other Zika-related birth defects.
In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 51 babies were born with Zika birth defects, 43 of which had microcephaly.
The disorder is extremely rare, affecting only between two and 12 babies per every 10,000 born in the US.
It can be caused by genetic mutations, malnutrition, exposures to infections or harmful substances, and interruptions to the flow of blood to the baby’s brain while it is in the womb.
Any of these may lead, in rare cases, to underdevelopment of the baby’s brain, which can also be fatal.
‘Children severely affected by Zika virus are falling far behind age-appropriate developmental milestones, and their challenges are becoming more evident as they age,’ said Dr Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the CDC.
Out of the 19 children surveilled by the CDC, nearly all (15) had severe motor function problems, many of them unable to sit on their own.
Many of the children also had debilitatingly poor vision and hearing, and did not respond to stimuli like the sound of a rattle.
More than half of the babies had had seizures and are likely to have lifelong seizure disorders.
Difficulties eating, sleeping and breathing were also common, leading to hospitalizations for eight of the children. Most of these were for pneumonia or bronchitis.
There is no known cure or treatment for microcephaly.
‘As children born affected by Zika virus grow up, they will need specialized care from many types of healthcare providers and caregivers,” said Dr Georgina Peacock, director of CDC’s Division of Human Development and Disability.
The virus is now well-contained, with very few cases in Brazil, which is hardest hit, and none to speak of in the US. Travel warnings are no longer effect in Florida but the CDC still cautions pregnant women and their partners to take great care in travelling to the Caribbean.
The findings of the latest report underscore that ‘it’s important that we use these findings to start planning now for their long-term care and stay vigilant in Zika prevention efforts in the United States and around the world,’ Dr Peacock said.