- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2018

One in seven babies born to Zika-infected mothers in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories had some form of defect or developed a neurological problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

The new study is the largest of its kind since a massive Zika outbreak sparked travel warnings in 2016. Though new cases have slowed to a trickle now, parents are still dealing with the medical fallout of the mosquito-borne epidemic.

Scientists tracked 1,450 Zika-exposed infants born in U.S. territories in 2016 and early 2017, and found 6 percent had a birth defect from the virus, such as an abnormally small head or a weakened optic nerve. The rate increased to 14 percent when those with Zika-linked neurologic abnormalities such as hearing or vision loss, seizures or trouble swallowing were included.

“The Zika story is really not over, especially for these children,” said Dr. Peggy Honein, director of the Division of Congenital and Developmental Disorders at the CDC’s center on birth defects.

Scientists said the numbers could increase as problems develop later on, and urged follow-up care such as cranial scans or intensive eye exams.

For instance, researchers said 20 infants were born with normal-sized heads but now suffer from a smaller head size — known as microcephaly — after failing to grow properly during the first year.

The CDC said children may also need speech therapy or other assistance to help them lead normal lives.

For most people, Zika doesn’t carry a big impact, and many don’t even know they’re infected. But scientists are getting a better handle on the devastating impacts from the surprising link between disease-carrying insects and birth defects in exposed newborns.

The disease, which spawned a global panic in 2015 and 2016, has largely burned itself out as a huge swath of the at-risk population developed immunity to the disease.

In the continental U.S., there haven’t been any cases by mosquito bite at all in 2018 and just seven in 2017, compared to more than 220 in 2016. Travelers returning to the states and D.C. have reported only 34 cases, way down from hundreds of travel cases in 2017 and nearly 5,000 in 2016.

The territories have seen 74 cases by mosquito bite so far this year, a sharp drop from tens of thousands at the height of the epidemic.

Yet scientists say transmission is still being detected in parts of Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, and could reemerge in at-risk states, so pregnant people and couples looking to conceive should be wary.

“The bottom line is Zika has not gone away, and we must remain cautious,” said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield.

The CDC did, however, say men with possible Zika virus exposure who are trying to have a baby with their partners can wait just three months after symptoms appear — or their last possible exposure to the virus, if they didn’t have symptoms — before engaging in unprotected sex.

Previously, the CDC urged men to wait six months. The agency said the latest data suggest the risk drops substantially after three months, so it revised its guidance.

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