Zika May Not be in the News, but Its Negative Impact Continues to be Felt

For many, Zika virus has fallen off the radar since the height of the outbreak in the western hemisphere in 2015–17 as the news cycle has moved on to other challenges. But Zika virus remains front and center to the families with children born with Zika-related health issues. These families will live with the effects of the virus for many years to come. Following these children as they mature is critical to understanding the Zika virus.

Zika, which spreads through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito and through sexual contact, first emerged in the Western Hemisphere in the spring of 2015 in Brazil. The virus then spread throughout much of Latin America, the Caribbean and U.S. territories. In the United States and territories, more than 42,000 people have tested positive for Zika.

Much has been learned during the outbreak, including the revelation that Zika infection in women during pregnancy has the potential to cause very serious, sometimes debilitating birth defects. 

Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new Vital Signs report providing further perspective around the negative impact to babies who were exposed to Zika virus before birth. CDC found disturbing evidence that about 14 percent of babies (one in seven) exposed to Zika virus before birth had one or more health problems possibly caused by Zika.

Some problems, according to CDC, were not apparent at birth and were later identified as the babies grew older. The health problems noted by CDC included Zika-associated birth defects such as small head size, brain damage, and eye damage, and nervous system problems, such as seizures and problems with vision and hearing. 

The analysis, according to CDC, is based on data from 4,800 pregnancies that occurred between 2016 and 2018 in U.S. territories with laboratory evidence of confirmed or possible Zika virus infection. More surveillance and research is critically needed to better understand the full impact of Zika virus on pregnant women and babies so that we can inform and protect those at greatest risk.

This past weekend, I joined a group in Maine for an event hosted by David Kotok of the investment firm Cumberland Advisors. I was there to highlight the CDC Foundation, including our work on CDC’s Zika response, which I discussed in this video interview.

For those of you who follow the CDC Foundation, you will recall that we worked on a variety of efforts with CDC and our donors to protect pregnant women, particularly in U.S. territories, during the height of the Zika outbreak.

For instance, we supported Zika Prevention Kits for pregnant women in U.S. territories, which included information on how to prevent Zika, insect repellent, condoms and more. In addition, we funded a Zika prevention communications campaign targeted at pregnant women and their communities to coincide with these kits.

Also, recognizing the importance of contraception access during the Zika outbreak as a means to prevent Zika-related birth defects, the CDC Foundation team, with technical assistance from CDC and in collaboration with stakeholders and partners, establish the Zika Contraception Access Network—or Z-CAN—in Puerto Rico in 2016. Z-CAN used contraception as a medical countermeasure to reduce the number of negative pregnancy and birth outcomes in Puerto Rico where nearly two-thirds of all pregnancies at the time were unplanned.

Our efforts continue today.

We have an urgent need for philanthropic and private sector support to help CDC study the long-term impact of Zika by examining the largest cohort of Zika-affected pregnancies in the world. In this cohort study, CDC is at the forefront of answering key questions about Zika, monitoring more than 7,300 pregnancies in the United States and territories and connecting children to care when needed.

While yesterday’s Vital Signs provides crucial information, we still don’t yet know Zika’s full impact on newborns, particularly as those children age. And, even more critically, we don’t yet fully know what the health outcomes will be for greater than 90 percent of the children born with congenital Zika virus infection in the United States since the outbreak occurred.

With additional philanthropic support through donations to the CDC Foundation, CDC will be able to follow infants with congenital Zika infection in 10 jurisdictions that represent more than 80 percent of affected pregnancies in the United States. We need help to win this fight and protect babies now and in future generations from the life-altering effects of Zika.

YOU can make a difference (learn more). Please support CDC’s work that will help us continue to learn more about Zika to help those children and families that are suffering from congenital Zika as well as protect future generations. For those wanting to learn more, please contact Caitlin Smyke-Epstein, CDC Foundation advancement officer.

Judy Monroe
Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.