10,000 women will be tracked throughout their pregnancies and into their babies' first year to determine how dangerous the virus really is.
The Zika virus has been making news repeatedly over the past few months, and while we've learned more and more about the health threat, it remains largely mysterious. Yes, Zika has been linked to microcephaly, a disorder that leaves infants with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development —but it's unclear what the odds of this happening are.
That's why a recently-announced study is so important: NBC News reports that a team of U.S. and international researchers will follow 10,000 women in Zika-affected areas from the beginning of pregnancy to the end of each baby's first year in order to draw some conclusions about the virus and how it affects offspring.
Here's one thing that's clear: According to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, there is no doubt that Zika causes birth defects, the most common being microcephaly.
With that being said, the study will aim to answer several other questions, like: Are women most vulnerable to Zika's effects during the first trimester? Are other defects linked to the virus? Is there an increased risk for women in Brazil and Colombia, the places where the birth defects seem to be more common?
Experts have suggested that perhaps poor women in Brazil's northeast could be at greater risk due to nutritional deficiencies, but we need more research before we can draw that conclusion.
"A mother's environment may be an important part of the Zika virus puzzle," Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, a group that's involved in the study, said. "We've included environmental measures in the study and will also be evaluating nutrition and socio-economic status."
There's also the idea that the infection could combine with other viruses or bacteria to affect a pregnancy—for example, dengue virus is circulating in certain areas where Zika is common and like Zika, it's a mosquito-borne illness.
"The study aims to recruit approximately 10,000 pregnant women ages 15 years and older in their first trimester of pregnancy at sites across Latin America and the Caribbean where active, local transmission of Zika virus is occurring," the National Institutes of Health, a sponsor of the study, said. "Additionally, the study will evaluate how the timing of infection affects pregnancy outcomes."
The idea that Zika doesn't often present with symptoms is important as well, as the study aims to discover whether the presence of symptoms can up a woman's odds of having babies with birth defects.
"The participants will be monitored monthly for the duration of their pregnancies and then at six weeks after they give birth. They will receive a physical examination and be asked to provide blood, urine, saliva and vaginal swab samples at study entry and at each monthly prenatal care visit," the NIH said of the study's research methods. "Post-delivery, a breast milk sample, if available, will be obtained for Zika testing. Infants whose mothers consent to their participation in the study will be evaluated within 48 hours of birth and then again at three, six and 12 months."
For answers to more of your Zika questions, check out Parents magazine's interview with Dr. Siobhan Dolan, a medical adviser to the March of Dimes and an OB/GYN at Albert Einstein College of Medicine: