The first pregnant patient with worries about a possible Zika virus infection arrived at the Children’s National Health System Fetal Medicine Institute on Jan. 26, 2016, shortly after returning from international travel.
Sixteen months ago, the world was just beginning to learn how devastating the mosquito-borne illness could be to fetuses developing in utero. As the epidemic spread, a growing number of sun-splashed regions that harbor mosquitoes that efficiently spread the virus experienced a ballooning number of Zika-affected pregnancies and began to record sobering birth defects.
The Washington, D.C. patient’s concerns were well-founded. Exposure to Zika virus early in her pregnancy led to significant fetal brain abnormalities, and Zika virus lingered in the woman’s bloodstream months after the initial exposure — longer than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) then thought was possible.
The research paper describing the woman’s lengthy Zika infection, published by The New England Journal of Medicine, was selected as one of the most impactful research papers written by Children’s National authors in 2016.
In the intervening months, a multidisciplinary team at Children National has consulted on 66 pregnancies and infants with confirmed or suspected Zika exposure. Thirty-five of the Zika-related evaluations were prenatal, and 31 postnatal evaluations assessed the impact of in utero Zika exposure after the babies were born.
The continuum of Zika-related injuries includes tragedies, such as a 28-year-old pregnant woman who was referred to Children’s National after imaging hinted at microcephaly. Follow-up with sharper magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) identified severe diffuse thinning of the cerebral cortical mantle, evidence of parenchymal cysts in the white matter and multiple contractures of upper and lower extremities with muscular atrophy.
According to a registry of Zika-affected pregnancies maintained by the CDC, one in 10 pregnancies across the United States with laboratory-confirmed Zika virus infection has resulted in birth defects in the fetus or infant.
“More surprising than that percentage is the fact that just 25 percent of infants underwent neuroimaging after birth – despite the CDC’s recommendation that all Zika-exposed infants undergo postnatal imaging,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-director of the Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National. “Clinicians should follow the CDC’s guidance to the letter, asking women about possible exposure to Zika and providing multidisciplinary care to babies after birth. Imaging is an essential tool to accurately monitor the growing baby’s brain development.”
Adré du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., M.P.H., director of the Fetal Medicine Institute and Congenital Zika Virus Program co-leader, explains the challenges: ”When it comes to understanding the long-term consequences for fetuses exposed to the Zika virus, we are still on the steepest part of the learning curve. Identifying those children at risk for adverse outcomes will require a sustained and concerted multidisciplinary effort from conception well beyond childhood.”
In addition to counseling families in the greater Washington, D.C. region, the Children’s research team is collaborating with international colleagues to conduct a clinical trial that has been recruiting Zika-infected women and their babies in Colombia. Pediatric Resident Youssef A. Kousa, D.O., Ph.D., M.S., and Neurologist Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., will present preliminary findings during Research and Education Week 2017.
In Colombia as well as the District of Columbia, a growing challenge continues to be assessing Zika’s more subtle effects on pregnancies, developing fetuses and infants, says Radiologist Dorothy Bulas, M.D., another member of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program.
The most severe cases from Brazil were characterized by interrupted fetal brain development, smaller-than-normal infant head circumference, brain calcifications, enlarged ventricles, seizures and limbs folded at odd angles. In the United States and many other Zika-affected regions, Zika-affected cases with such severe birth defects are outnumbered by infants who were exposed to Zika in utero but have imaging that appears normal.
In a darkened room, Dr. Bulas pores over magnified images of the brains of Zika-infected babies, looking for subtle differences in structure that may portend future problems.
“There are some questions we have answered in the past year, but a number of questions remain unanswered,” Dr. Bulas says. “For neonates, that whole area needs assessment. As the fetal brain is developing, the Zika virus seems to affect the progenitor cells. They’re getting hit quite early on. While we may not detect brain damage during the prenatal period, it may appear in postnatal images. And mild side effects that may not be as obvious early on still have the potential to be devastating.”