A new study, led in part by the University of Washington, raises new concerns over the threat of the Zika virus for pregnant women and their babies.
It found that children who appear normal at birth may show signs of the debilitating disease years down the road.
“Our research team is showing now, for the first time, that Zika virus damage to the fetal brain can be incredibly subtle and difficult to detect during pregnancy,” says Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf.
For years, doctors diagnosed Zika in newborns who had abnormally small heads.
But Waldorf’s research looked at changes in the brains of primates and found that even when a baby is born with a normal-sized head, possible severe brain damage may have occurred and might not be diagnosed until years later.
“We need to follow them long-term and look for signs like Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Waldorf says.
Researchers say Alzheimer’s and dementia could also appear in toddlers and even teens years after they were infected because their brains contain similar neural stem cells.
Right now, the CDC estimates that more than 42,000 people in the U.S. and Puerto Rico have been infected with Zika since the outbreak began.
But based on her research, Waldorf believes there could be many more patients who have yet to be diagnosed.
For now, her advice to patients, especially pregnant women, is to avoid places known to have mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus.