Birth Defects Insights: A Scientist’s Reflections on Zika

by Sonja A. Rasmussen, MD, MS, President, Teratology Society

See this article on LinkedIn.

What a difference a year makes. In December 2015, as incoming Teratology Society president and chair of the 2016 annual meeting program committee, I was looking for an issue for our “Hot Topics” session. Each year, we save time at our annual meeting for an emerging topic and time was getting short. I remembered an email the Teratology Society office had received in late October: “. . .we are concerned about the introduction of a new arbovirus in the continent, in particular chikungunya and Zika viruses, and would like to provide tools to the countries to study and identify potential congenital arboviral infections, including their possible teratogenicity.” At that time, I worked to connect the person with our CDC experts in birth defects surveillance and in arboviral diseases. I recalled seeing more on this topic in the news -- reports about an outbreak of Zika virus that had been linked to an increased number of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil. I proposed this topic to the Teratology Society Science Committee. Initially, there was some skepticism, but overall, committee members supported the topic. One member commented, “This looks to be a fascinating topic if the findings are real. (Remember the anencephaly outbreak in Brownsville, TX that was thought to be due to pollution or due to a high corn diet with resulting low folate?)” After some discussion, we decided to go with the topic – but to leave the title vague, in case by June, it was clear that this was a red herring. We called the session “Exploring the Link between Zika Virus and Adverse Pregnancy and Birth Outcomes”.

Of course, a year later, we now know a lot more about Zika and the problems it can cause during pregnancy (see this recent summary.) Our Teratology Society Annual Meeting and Zika session in June 2016 were successful, with presentations from colleagues from Brazil and CDC sharing the latest information on the outbreak. Now Zika has spread beyond Brazil – to 49 other countries in the Americas, including the United States. Using criteria set by one of the Teratology Society founders, Dr. Tom Shepard, Zika virus was determined to be a cause of microcephaly and other serious brain defects. A recognizable pattern of defects, called congenital Zika syndrome, has been described in infants born to mothers infected with Zika virus during pregnancy. We are beginning to understand the pathogenesis of Zika – that it is neurotropic with a special affinity for neural progenitor cells. Animal models for Zika and microcephaly have been developed, and work on a Zika vaccine is well underway.

Still, many questions remain.

What other health and developmental issues can we attribute to Zika infection during pregnancy? How do other factors such as previous infections, a woman’s metabolism, or her genetic makeup determine to what level her fetus may be affected by Zika infection? Other than avoiding the bite of a Zika-carrying mosquito and sexual transmission through a Zika-infected partner, are there other ways a pregnant woman can reduce her risk of having a baby affected by Zika? As with other advances in birth defects research on topics such as rubella, folic acid, Accutane, and valproic acid, the Teratology Society and its members have a critical role to play in providing answers to these questions and moving toward prevention of the adverse outcomes associated with Zika. In June 2017, scientists will meet again at the Teratology Society annual meeting to share the latest information on birth defects research and prevention. Again, we will have a special session on Zika virus – where we will continue to work together to better understand how the virus damages the fetus and ways to prevent the effects of Zika on the developing fetus.

While I pause to marvel at what a difference a year can make in this field, I am also re-energized. I wonder what a difference 2017 will make, especially if researchers from various disciplines work together. January’s Birth Defects Prevention Month is upon us. The time is now to come together, research, and #Prevent2Protect.

About the Author

Sonja A. Rasmussen, MD, MS, is editor-in-chief of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) Series and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Public Health Information Dissemination in the Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services.

About the Teratology Society

Scientists interested or are already involved in research related to topics mentioned in this blog are encouraged to join the Teratology Society, the premier source for cutting-edge research and authoritative information related to birth defects and developmentally-mediated disorders. Teratology Society members include those specializing in cell and molecular biology, developmental biology and toxicology, reproduction and endocrinology, epidemiology, nutritional biochemistry, and genetics, as well as the clinical disciplines of prenatal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, neonatology, medical genetics, and teratogen risk counseling. In addition, the Teratology Society publishes the scientific journal, Birth Defects Research.  Learn more at Find the Teratology Society on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.


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