Zika virus, microcephaly, Guillain-Barré syndrome and Catholicism

Key things to know about current health concerns around the world

February 25, 2016 Zen Vuong

The World Health Organization declared Zika virus an international public health emergency this month after a drastic increase in babies born with microcephaly (abnormally small heads) and people contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder.

Reports of possible sexual transmission of Zika virus have led to recommendations for contraception use in Catholic-dominated countries where a Zika outbreak originated.

Five things you need to know about Zika virus

“The risk that a Californian will contract Zika virus from a local Aedes mosquito is low because California is not hot and humid like Latin America or the Caribbean. Florida, southern Texas and New Orleans are probably the first places in the United States that might house mosquitos carrying Zika virus. These locations have had reported incidents of dengue and Chikungunya — two diseases that originate from the same type of mosquito that harbors Zika virus.”

“Although Zika virus is not new, the scientific literature about Zika virus is sparse. Researchers have yet to develop animal models for Zika virus infection. In fact, scientists have not been able to infect a healthy mouse with dengue, a disease that we have been working on for a longer amount of time.”

“Mosquito-borne diseases and airborne diseases are the most worrisome emerging pathogens to human health. Vaccines don’t exist for diseases such as Zika virus, Dengue virus, Chikungunya virus, MERs or SARs.”

“It will take many years before a viable Zika vaccine will be produced. Some experts say it will take a decade.”

“It will also take some time before scientists are able to definitively say Zika virus causes or does not cause microcephaly, Guillain-Barré syndrome or any of the other health effects that have been correlated with Zika virus.”

Jae Jung is director of the USC Institute of Emerging Pathogens and Immune Diseases and chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. One of his areas of expertise is how viruses evade a host body’s immune response.

Microcephaly could occur in the general population

“Families should speak to their medical provider about their concerns. People should keep in mind that microcephaly has many causes, including placental insufficiency, severe malnutrition, exposure to harmful substances like alcohol and certain congenital infections such as rubella. Genetic problems that have nothing to do with Zika virus could also be at play, so Zika shouldn’t immediately be at the top of everyone’s blame list. However, it should be considered, especially if there was travel to an area with active transmission.”

“Microcephaly can occur in isolation, but other birth defects and problems may also result, including seizures, cerebral palsy, hearing loss and developmental disability. There is still a lot of new information being gathered, so it is important to spread the word about possible causes without having everyone panic.”

Pedro Sanchez is director of craniofacial genetics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics and clinical pathology at the Keck School of Medicine. He has spent the past decade evaluating children with congenital craniofacial malformations, including microcephaly.

Three things you should know about Guillain-Barré syndrome

“Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare disorder in which your immune system attacks your own nerve cells. Many cases of GBS begin after a viral or bacterial infection. The condition could progress to paralysis and has been linked to Zika virus, though more research is needed to determine what, if any, relationship exists.”

“The severity of Guillain-Barré syndrome could vary from a full recovery with treatment to paralysis of all four limbs. In the latter case, patients may be able to move only their eyes and would need a ventilator. Recovery in these situations can be extremely slow, and the patient will never return to 100 percent.”

“People who have Guillain-Barré syndrome initially complain of weakness and tingling or numbness of the outer limbs. They also tend to have reduced reflexes and lower back pain. The tingling occurs on both sides.”

May Kim-Tenser is co-director of the Neurointensive Care Unit and an assistant professor of clinical neurology at the Keck School of Medicine. She specializes in the diagnosis and management of patients with stroke and those who are neurocritically ill. She sees about six Guillain-Barré syndrome patients a year.

Contraception use in Catholic-dominated nations

“The Catholic Church has traditionally resisted the use of artificial contraceptives by Catholics. But Pope Benedict XVI suggested in 2010 that HIV-infected spouses may be a reasonable exception to the rule. Now, citing a 1968 papal encyclical famously associated with the ban on contraception, Pope Francis suggested on Feb. 18 that infections like the mosquito-borne Zika virus may be an occasion for rethinking the church’s substantial opposition. “Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” he said in response to inquiries about whether contraceptive use was preferable to abortion for Zika-infected pregnant women.

“On a continent that is overwhelmingly Catholic, such a change in attitude has the potential to prevent thousands of cases of Zika-associated microcephaly and the lifelong brain damage that often comes with it.”

J. Patrick Whelan lectures at the Keck School of Medicine on issues related to infection and immunity. He is a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC and is an expert in Catholic bioethics, abortion and contraception.