Researchers at The Rockefeller University in New York have recently published some interesting new findings surrounding the Zika virus and pregnancy. Known to cause some pretty major birth defects, scientists at the university wanted to know why the virus only affects some fetuses and not others.
One of the main risks of being exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy is microcephaly, in which the baby is born with an extremely small head as compared to the rest of the body. ScienceDaily reports that the birth defect occurs in roughly 5% of births by mothers infected with the virus.
The virus, which is typically found in warmer climates, is carried and transmitted by mosquitoes. Unless immunocompromised, most people can fight off the virus on their own. In saying that, however, after the major Zika outbreak back in 2015-2016, doctors and scientists started noticing that although not having major effects on healthy adults, the virus can do some pretty major damage to a developing fetus.
What was strange about the outbreak was that not all babies who were exposed to the virus in utero suffered complications and researchers were determined to find out why. After analyzing the blood from mothers during the outbreak, the team of researchers found something rather intriguing that separated those whose babies were affected and those whose babies weren't.
According to the research, mothers exposed to the Zika virus prenatally whose babies had no ill-effects produced certain antibodies that their counterparts lacked. Contrary to what scientists would expect, it was proposed that the mothers who were exposed to similar viruses such as dengue virus or West Nile virus, actually had more risk of having a baby with microcephaly than those who were never exposed.
Davide F. Robbiani, a Research Associate Professor at The Rockefeller University, and Professor Michel C. Nussenzweig, who led the study, teamed up with scientists in Brazil where the outbreak occurred and analyzed the blood samples of those pregnant during the time. Against what was proposed, they found no evidence that previous exposure to similar viruses increased the risks of microcephaly at all.
Published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine on August 14th, the study did show a breakthrough in understanding the virus. Here is the interesting part: the babies who were most affected by the Zika virus were born to mothers whose immune systems were better at fighting the virus off, implying that the mother's antibodies actually helped the virus infect the baby. This finding showed that developing a vaccine to protect unborn babies from the virus might be a bit more complicated than previously thought.