Zika virus damaging eye development in unborn babies

Macular damage reported in pre-natal infants suffering incomplete brain development from Zika virus


Macular atrophy is being reported in children born in Brazil with severe birth defects after exposure to the Zika virus in utero.

Two girls and one boy with microcephaly have had their eyes analysed by researchers from Brazil’s Federal University of Sao Paulo and HOPE Eye Hospital.

All three infants were discovered to have gross macular pigment mottling in the ocular tests, including biomicroscopy and a fundus examination. These findings were published in a correspondence paper in The Lancet last month.

The babies were also found to have suffered loss of the foveal reflex – critical for central, fine-detail vision – and fundoscopic alterations in the macular region.

One child also had well-defined macular neuroretinal atrophy.

Paper authors Camila Ventura, Mauricio Maia, Vasco Bravo-Filho, Adriana Gois and Rubens Belfort Jr said: “To our knowledge, this is the first report of ocular findings in infants with microcephaly born after the Zika virus outbreak.”

This week the World Health Organization declared the current outbreak a Public Health Emergency. The virus, which is primarily spread by a tropical mosquito species, is now in 25 countries across Central and South America.

Public Health England travel health expert, Dr Hilary Kirkbride, advised: “While we may expect to see small numbers of Zika virus infections in travellers returning to the UK, the risk to the wider population is negligible as the mosquito is not found in the UK and the virus cannot be caught from coming into contact with an infected person.”

Symptoms of the typically mild illness include conjunctivitis, fever, rashes and joint pain. However, it has been linked to birth defects in the infants of pregnant women who contract the disease at any stage of pregnancy.

There is currently no specific treatment or vaccine for the infectious disease. Prior to this year’s outbreak, Zika virus had been seen in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

As well as vision loss and intellectual disabilities, babies exposed to Zika virus are also thought to suffer hearing loss and seizures.