Researchers Follow Zika Babies Looking for COVID Answers

Study follows kids whose moms were infected with mosquito-borne disease
By Liz MacGahan,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 27, 2021 1:41 PM CST
Study Follows Long-Term Effects of Zika on Children
File photo of an Aedes aegypti mosquito known to carry the Zika virus photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil.   (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

(Newser) – Whatever happened with Zika? The outbreak in 2015 and 2016 was largely over by 2017, but its effects on babies whose moms were infected with the virus are still being felt. Some babies were born with microcephaly—a condition marked by an unusually small head and problems with brain development. The virus, spread by mosquitoes, appears to destroy fetal brain cells. But what about the kids born during the epidemic with moms who came down with the disease, but whose fetal scans showed a normal head circumference? That’s a question Dr. Sarah Mulkey is trying to answer. Mulkey is a fetal neonatal neurologist in Washington, DC, who has been following a group of moms and kids since the outbreak to see if babies who seemed fine at birth are developing normally, or are experiencing long-term effects of the virus.

In a piece for NPR, Selena Simmons-Duffin spoke with Mulkey and a mom and kid from her study. Yaritza Martinez tested positive for Zika while she was pregnant with her son, Yariel, 5. Martinez’s take is simple: "He's a healthy boy," she said. Mulkey is paying close attention to his development, though. "A baby doesn't have to do a lot of things — they have to eat and make lots of diapers for their parents and all that,” she said, but pointed out that as kids grow up, things get more complicated. Her study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, of a cohort of 70 kids points to some developmental problems down the road.

Fine motor skills "seems to be an area that they are having some more struggles with, whereas the bigger motor functions of running and jumping seem to be a little bit better," she says. Dr. Karen Puopolo, another neonatologist, said it’s important to watch for subtle developmental differences before they become a bigger problem for kids. A kid who has a little bit of trouble with a simple task might act up out of frustration, then get labeled as “a fidgety misbehaving child” and miss out on opportunities at school. Puopolo notes that it’s valuable to study when during pregnancy a mom came down with Zika, too. And that research could prove relevant to COVID, as researchers wonder what might turn up years from now in kids whose moms were infected. (Read more Zika virus stories.)

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