Zika virus: Evidence that virus can cross placental barrier, but unclear link with microcephaly

Zika virus has been detected in the amniotic fluid of two pregnant women whose foetuses had been diagnosed with microcephaly, according to a study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The report suggests that Zika virus can cross the placental barrier, but does not prove that the virus causes microcephaly, as more research is needed to understand the link.

Researchers also analysed the whole genome of the virus found in the two pregnant women and confirmed that the virus is genetically related to the strain identified during an outbreak of Zika virus in French Polynesia in 2013.

“Previous studies have identified Zika virus in the saliva, breast milk and urine of mothers and their newborn babies, after having given birth. This study reports details of the Zika virus being identified directly in the amniotic fluid of a woman during her pregnancy, suggesting that the virus could cross the placental barrier and potentially infect the foetus,” said Dr Ana de Filippis, lead author from the Oswaldo Cruz Institute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Dr de Filippis added “This study cannot determine whether the Zika virus identified in these two cases was the cause of microcephaly in the babies. Until we understand the biological mechanism linking Zika virus to microcephaly we cannot be certain that one causes the other, and further research is urgently needed.”

The number of reported cases of newborn babies with microcephaly in Brazil in 2015 has increased twenty-fold compared with previous years. At the same time, Brazil has reported a high number of Zika virus infections, leading to speculation that the two may be linked.

Babies born with microcephaly have abnormally small heads, and are at risk of incomplete brain development.

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