As you’ve probably seen, unless you’ve been living in a cave, Zika virus is the infectious disease topic du jour. From an obscure virus to the newest scare, interest in the virus has skyrocketed just in the past few weeks:
I have a few pieces already on Zika, so I won’t repeat myself here. The first is an introductory primer to the virus, answering the basic questions–what is it, where did it come from, what are its symptoms, why is it concerning? The second focuses on Zika’s potential risk to pregnant women, and what is currently being advised for them.
I want to be clear, though–currently, we aren’t 100% sure that Zika virus is causing microcephaly, the condition that is most concerning with this recent outbreak. The circumstantial evidence appears to be pretty strong, but we don’t have good data on 1) how common microcephaly really was in Brazil (or other affected countries) prior to the outbreak. Microcephaly seems to have increased dramatically, but some of those cases are not confirmed, and others don’t seem to be related to Zika; and if Zika really is causing microcephaly, 2) how Zika could be causing this, whether timing of the infection makes a difference, and whether women who are infected asymptomatically are at risk of medical problems in their developing fetuses.
The first question needs good epidemiological data for answers. This can be procured in a few ways. First, babies born with microcephaly, and their mothers, can be tested for Zika virus infection. This can be looked at a few ways: finding traces of the virus itself; finding antibodies to the virus (suggesting a past infection–but one can’t know the exact timing of this); and asking about known infections during pregnancy. Each approach has advantages and limitations. Tracking the virus or its genetic material is a gold standard, but the virus may only be present in body fluids for a short time. So if you miss that window, a false negative could result. This could be coupled with serology, to look at past infection–but you can’t be 100% certain in that case that the infection occurred during pregnancy–though with the apparently recent introduction of Zika into the Americas, it’s likely that infection would be fairly recent.
Serology coupled with an infection in pregnancy that has symptoms consistent with Zika (headache, muscle/joint pain, rash, fever) would be a step up from this, but has some additional problems. Other viral infections can be similar in symptoms to Zika (dengue, chikungunya, even influenza if the patient is lacking a rash), so tests to rule those out should also be done. On the flip side, about 80% of Zika infections show no symptoms at all–so a woman could still have come into contact with the virus and have positive serology, but she wouldn’t have any recollection of infection.
None of this is easy to carry out, but needs to be done in order to really establish with some level of certainty that Zika is the cause of microcephaly in this area. In the meantime, there are a few other possibilities to consider: that another virus (such as rubella) is circulating there. This is a known cause of multiple congenital issues, including microcephaly. This could explain why they’re seeing cases of microcephaly in Brazil, but none have been reported thus far in Colombia. Another is that there is no real increase in microcephaly at all–that, for some reason, people have just recently started paying more attention to it, and associated it with the Zika outbreak in the area–what we call a surveillance bias.
This is a fast-moving story, and we probably won’t have any solid answers to these questions for some time. In the interim, I think it’s prudent to take this as a possibility, and raise awareness of the potential this virus *may* have on the developing fetus, so that women can take precautions as they’re able. Public health is about prevention, and there have certainly been cases in the past of links between A and B that fell apart under further scrutiny. Zika/microcephaly may be one, but for now, it’s an unfortunate case where “more research is needed” is about the best answer one can currently give.