Zika Virus Might Cause Blindness in Babies

We have a bit more information about what the Zika virus can do to a fetus if it infects a pregnant woman and it's sadly even worse than we thought.

Zika Virus Might Cause Blindness in Babies Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Zika virus just keeps getting scarier and scarier. We know that while the virus doesn't seem to be too serious for most people, it can have devastating effects on pregnant women and their fetuses.

We've reported that Zika is spread by mosquitos and has been transmitted sexually in at least one case. Now, we've learned a bit more about what the Zika virus can cause: The infection has been linked to microcephaly, a disorder that can cause a baby to be born with an abnormally small head. According to recent research, microcephaly can also lead to vision-threatening eye abnormalities.

The Zika virus has reached epidemic proportions in Brazil, where it has been a major health issue since April 2015—six months later, there was a surge of babies who were born with microcephally. By January 2016, there had been 3,174 infants born with the condition.

Zika and blindness

Rubens Belfort, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., and a team of co-authors studied the ocular findings of 29 infants who were born with microcephally. Of the 29 infants surveyed, 23 (79.3 percent) were born to women who showed symptoms (including fever, rash, joint pain) of the Zika virus during pregnancy. Of the 23 women affected by Zika, 18 showed symptoms during their first trimesters. Here's the scary part: Ten of the 29 infants surveyed showed eye abnormalities. Ocular lesions were observed—these commonly involved mottled pigment in the eye and chorioretinal atrophy, which can cause parts of the eye to become damaged and possibly wither away.

While it's difficult to evaluate visual function in babies, there's a chance that these findings could present later in life.

"This study can help guide clinical management and practice, as we observed that a high proportion of the infants with microcephaly had ophthalmologic lesions. Infants with microcephaly should undergo routine ophthalmologic evaluations to identify such lesions. In high-transmission settings, such as South America, Central America and the Caribbean, ophthalmologists should be aware of the risk of congenital Zika-associated ophthalmologic sequelae," the authors wrote in a release for the study.

While the dangers from the disease keep mounting, the CDC has said it does not expect Zika to become widespread in the United States.