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False negatives: Delayed Zika effects in babies who appeared normal at birth

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Colombian infants exposed to Zika virus in the womb showed neurodevelopmental delays as toddlers, despite having “normal” brain imaging and head circumference at birth, a finding that underscores the importance of long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up for Zika-exposed infants.

Colombian infants exposed to Zika virus in the womb showed neurodevelopmental delays as toddlers, despite having “normal” brain imaging and head circumference at birth, a finding that underscores the importance of long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up for Zika-exposed infants, according to a cohort study published online Jan. 6, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics.

“These infants had no evidence of Zika deficits or microcephaly at birth. Neurodevelopmental deficits, including declines in mobility and social cognition, emerged in their first year of life even as their head circumference remained normal,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D. Ph.D., a fetal/neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Hospital and the study’s first author. “About one-third of these newborns who underwent postnatal head ultrasound had nonspecific imaging results, which we believe are the first published results finding a link between subtle brain injuries and impaired neuromotor development in Zika-exposed children.”

The multi-institutional research group led by Children’s National enrolled pregnant women in Atlántico Department, which hugs the Caribbean coast of Colombia, who had been exposed to Zika, and performed a series of fetal magnetic resonance images (MRI) and ultrasounds as their pregnancies progressed.

Even though their mothers had laboratory-confirmed Zika infections, 77 out of 82 of their offspring were born with no sign of congenital Zika syndrome, a constellation of birth defects that includes severe brain abnormalities, eye problems and congenital contractures, and 70 underwent additional testing of neurodevelopment during infancy. These apparently normal newborns were born between Aug. 1, 2016, and Nov. 30, 2017, at the height of the Zika epidemic, and had normal head circumference.

When they were 4 to 8 months or 9 to 18 months of age, the infants’ neurodevelopment was evaluated using two validated tools, the Warner Initial Developmental Evaluation of Adaptive and Functional Skills (a 50-item test of such skills as self-care, mobility, communication and social cognition) and the Alberta Infant Motor Scale (a motor examination of infants in prone, supine, sitting and standing positions). Some infants were assessed during each time point.

Women participating in the study were highly motivated, with 91% following up with appointments, even if it meant traveling hours by bus. In addition to Children’s National faculty traveling to Colombia to train staff how to administer the screening instruments, videotaped assessments, MRIs and ultrasounds were read, analyzed and scored at Children’s National. According to the study team, the U.S. scoring of Alberta Infant Motor Scale tests administered in Colombia is also unprecedented for a research study and offers the potential of remote scoring of infants’ motor skill maturity in regions of the world where pediatric specialists, like child neurologists, are lacking.

“Normally, neurodevelopment in infants and toddlers continues for years, building a sturdy neural network that they later use to carry out complex neurologic and cognitive functions as children enter school,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “Our findings underscore the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that all infants exposed to Zika in the womb undergo long-term follow-up, providing an opportunity to intervene earlier.”

An accompanying editorial by CDC staffers concurs, saying the study reported “intriguing data” that add “to the growing evidence of the need for long-term follow-up for all children with Zika virus exposure in utero to ensure they receive the recommended clinical evaluations even when no structural defects are identified at birth.”

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Margarita Arroyave-Wessel, MPH, Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D., chief of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiology, JiJi Jiang, MS, Stephanie Russo, BS, Robert McCarter, ScD, research section head, design and biostatistics,  Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, chief of the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine, and co-Senior Author, Roberta L. DeBiasi, MD, MS, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, all of Children’s National; Colleen Peyton, PT, DPT, of Northwestern University; Yamil Fourzali, M.D., of Sabbag Radiologos, Barranquilla, Colombia; Michael E. Msall, M.D., of University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital; and co-Senior Author, Carlos Cure, M.D., BIOMELab, Barranquilla, Colombia.

Funding for the research described in this post was provided by the Thrasher Research Fund, the National Institutes of Health under award Nos. UL1TR001876 and KL2TR001877, and the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disorders Training Program under grant HRSA/MCHB T73 MC11047.

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Neuroimaging essential for Zika cases

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About three years ago, Zika virus emerged as a newly recognized congenital infection, and a growing body of research indicates the damage it causes differs from other infections that occur in utero.

Seventy-one of 110 Brazilian infants at the highest risk for experiencing problems due to exposure to the Zika virus in the womb experienced a wide spectrum of brain abnormalities, including calcifications and malformations in cortical development, according to a study published July 31, 2019 in JAMA Network Open.

The infants were born at the height of Brazil’s Zika epidemic, a few months after the nation declared a national public health emergency. Already, many of the infants had been classified as having the severe form of congenital Zika syndrome, and many had microcephaly, fetal brain disruption sequence, arthrogryposis and abnormal neurologic exams at birth.

These 110 infants “represented a group of ZIKV-exposed infants who would be expected to have a high burden of neuroimaging abnormalities, which is a difference from other reported cohorts,” Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., writes in an invited commentary published in JAMA Network Open that accompanies the Rio de Janeiro study. “Fortunately, many ZIKV-exposed infants do not have abnormal brain findings or a clinical phenotype associated with congenital Zika syndrome,” adds Dr. Mulkey, a fetalneonatal neurologist in the Division of Fetal and Transitional Medicine at Children’s National in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, a retrospective cohort of 82 women exposed to Zika during their pregnancies led by a research team at Children’s National found only three pregnancies were complicated by severe fetal brain abnormalities. Compared with the 65% abnormal computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) findings in the new Brazilian study, about 1 in 10 (10%) of babies born to women living in the continental U.S. with confirmed Zika infections during pregnancy had Zika-associated birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There appears to be a spectrum of brain imaging abnormalities in ZIKV-exposed infants, including mild, nonspecific changes seen at cranial US [ultrasound], such as lenticulostriate vasculopathy and germinolytic cysts, to more significant brain abnormalities, such as subcortical calcifications, ventriculomegaly and, in its most severe form, thin cortical mantle and fetal brain disruption sequence,” Dr. Mulkey writes.

About three years ago, Zika virus emerged as a newly recognized congenital infection, and a growing body of research indicates the damage it causes differs from other infections that occur in utero. Unlike congenital cytomegalovirus infection, cerebral calcifications associated with Zika are typically subcortical, Dr. Mulkey indicates. What’s more, fetal brain disruption sequence seen in Zika-exposed infants is unusual for other infections that can cause microcephaly.

“Centered on the findings of Pool, et al, and others, early neuroimaging remains one of the most valuable investigations of the Zika-exposed infant,” Dr. Mulkey writes, including infants who are not diagnosed with congenital Zika syndrome.  She recommends:

  • Cranial ultrasound as the first-line imaging option for infants, if available, combined with neurologic and ophthalmologic exams, and brainstem auditory evoked potentials
  • Zika-exposed infants with normal cranial ultrasounds do not need additional imaging unless they experience a developmental disturbance
  • Zika-exposed infants with abnormal cranial ultrasounds should undergo further neuroimaging with low-dose cranial CT or brain MRI.