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How 1-Year-Old Zika Babies Are Helping Researchers

Photograph by Getty Images

Babies born with the Zika virus face a myriad of health problems from the moment they’re born.

However, as those babies approach their first milestone birthday, they're facing daunting health problems such as difficulties swallowing, epileptic seizures, and hearing and vision problems.

Zika-caused microcephaly, or a birth defect that causes smaller heads, seems to be causing more problems in infants than other known causes of microcephaly, such as German Measles and herpes, according to the Associated Press.

Doctors say they consider this problem unique, so they’re calling it congenital Zika syndrome.

The Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, and the seriousness of it was unknown until babies born to infected mothers presented with birth defects.

Brazil is ground zero for the outbreak, with the largest numbers of infections in any of the Latin American countries. The government there has recorded more than 2,000 cases of microcephaly in the past year. Only 343 have been confirmed as caused by Zika, but the health ministry says the rest are likely caused by the virus, too.

“We’re seeing a lot of seizures. And now they are having many problems eating, so a lot of these children start using feeding tubes," says pediatric neurologist Dr. Vanessa Van der Linden, who works in Recife, on the Eastern edge of Brazil. She is one of the first doctors who suspected Zika caused microcephaly and other studies have confirmed this link. Van der Linden and her team say 7 percent of the babies born with microcephaly they are treating also suffer from arm and leg deformities that are not linked to other causes of microcephaly.

Doctors there have been tracking three groups of babies in a study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health to follow the effects of Zika over time. The groups include infants born with microcephaly, those with normal heads but who have brain damage and other physical defects, and some who have not shown any developmental delays, physical defects or other symptoms associated with the virus.

Some babies that were born with normal heads stopped growing proportionally months later. But other babies who were infected in the womb did not develop microcephaly at all. However, they have developed different problems, such as one child who had a difficult time moving his left hand, according to Van der Linden.

In Brazil, studies are looking into how the timing of the infection during pregnancy affects the severities of the defects, according to researcher Ricardo Ximenes of the Fiocruz Institute in Recife.

"We may not even know about the [children] with slight problems out there," Van der Linden told the AP. "We are writing the history of this disease."

One positive note, some of the babies who suffer from microcephaly are progressing despite the illness, and awareness about the consequences have caused the government to get more actively involved in mosquito abatement campaigns. But there is still much more research needed to determine the long-term effects of the Zika virus.

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