Should You Be Concerned About A Connection Between Neurological Symptoms And The Zika Virus?

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The Zika virus has been in the news because it may be linked to severe birth defects in Brazilian children. Several babies whose mothers had the mosquito-borne virus during early pregnancy have been born with microcephaly, which produces smaller heads and brains, with resulting cognitive issues.

But now Zika is also connected to a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, where the body's immune system attacks part of the nervous system. The research done on this connection, which was published in the British medical journal The Lancet, is preliminary and centered in French Polynesia rather than South America. Forty-two patients in a six-month period developed the somewhat rare syndrome, and 41 of those had antibodies showing they'd also had Zika. 

What is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre is a neurological disease that can strike anyone, of any age or gender. Initially, the immune system begins to attack larger muscle groups, and patients notice tingling feelings or weakness in their legs. The same sensations spread to the arms and upper body, increasing in intensity until the patient has pain and weakness throughout the body. In severe cases, breathing can be effected and the patient may have to use a ventilator. Fortunately, most people recover from Guillain-Barre, although they may continue to have muscular weakness for some time.

Medical professionals aren't sure exactly what triggers Guillain-Barre. There has been speculation that some viral or bacterial infections could weaken the nervous system in a way that prompts the immune system to begin making antibodies against parts of the myelin sheath that surrounds muscle cells.

How is Zika Connected to Guillain-Barre?

In the French Polynesia study, not only did researchers discover that 98 percent of the Guillain-Barre sufferers had antibodies to Zika, but they found 88 percent of patients had experienced typical symptoms of Zika like fever, joint pain and a rash, about a week before they developed Guillain-Barre.

The World Health Organization reported in early 2016 that there are now eight nations where links between Zika and Guillain-Barre have been found. There is no known way to prevent Zika from causing the neurological problems associated with Guillain-Barre.

How Can This Neurological Issue Be Treated?

Currently, there is no cure for either Zika -- it must run its course while any symptoms are treated -- or for Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Patients who are diagnosed with Guillain-Barre are usually hospitalized because of the risk of the disease becoming very serious quickly and making it difficult to breathe without assistance. Recovery may be quicker with either intravenous infusions of immunoglobulin to strengthen the immune system or blood plasma exchange to increase white blood cell count and similarly strengthen an overtaxed immune system.

Some patients must undergo physical therapy or similar reconditioning to regain muscle function following their recovery.

If you experience increasing weakness in your legs and arms or other symptoms of Guillain-Barre, especially if you've recently visited nations where there is an outbreak of the Zika virus, seek medical treatment immediately. For more information, contact Mohsen M. Hamza, M.D. or a similar medical professional.