When the Zika virus first began spreading across South America in 2015, the primary concern for pregnant mothers was that, if infected, their child may be born with microcephaly - a neurological condition where an infant’s head is smaller than expected, typically due to the brain developing abnormally in the womb or not growing as it should after birth.
Karin Nielsen-Saines and her colleagues in Brazil, however, are much more concerned about the third of infants they have found that are experiencing developmental delays, regardless of whether or not they have microcephaly.
“Microcephaly was just showing up because there was a lot of Zika,” Nielsen-Saines said. “There were clusters because a lot of people were infected.” In reality, only about four percent of infants born to mothers infected by the virus during pregnancy ended up with microcephaly. “If you look at mild developmental delays, it was a much larger group.”
Nielsen-Saines, a professor of clinical pediatrics division of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, and her colleagues screened 216 infants between the ages of 7 and 32 months old using the Bayley Scale of Infant and Toddler Development on two-thirds of the children and the Hammersmith Infant Neurological Examination on the remaining infants. They found that 31.5 percent of the children scored below average, with the effects primarily apparently in language development.
While it’s clear that additional research will need to be conducted, in the meantime this study not only provides a great jumping point for said research, but can help inform early intervention for the child of those born to mothers infected by the disease. “With early stimulation programs, physical therapy, and so on, we can do something before there is permanent damage.”