HEALTH

CDC Confirms Zika Virus Causes Rare Birth Defects

After months of speculation, CDC officials confirm that Zika virus causes microcephaly, a rare birth defect

HEALTH
Confirmed: Zika virus causes microcephaly, a rare birth defect — (Illustration: Tara Jacoby)
Apr 13, 2016 at 6:03 PM ET

CDC officials have just confirmed that Zika virus, the mosquito-born disease that has torn through South America resulting in more than 1.5 million infections in Brazil, causes microcephaly and other severe birth defects. “It is now clear, the CDC has concluded, that Zika does cause microcephaly,” said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden in a press conference shortly after CDC published its findings in the New England Journal of Medicine.

There is still a lot that we don’t know, but there’s no longer any doubt.”

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The Zika virus scare always came with one major caveat—we weren’t sure whether it caused birth defects. In fact, several studies cast doubts on the alleged link between Zika and microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with small heads and developmental delays. The lack of data set up an odd dichotomy for reporters and public health officials, alike: if Zika did cause birth defects, it was an emergency; if it did not—not so much. Because, birth defects aside, the symptoms of Zika are usually so minor in healthy patients that more than 50 percent of Zika “victims” never even notice they’re infected.

But that all changes now that the CDC has established a link between Zika and microcephaly. Fortunately, CDC had already been issuing travel warnings for pregnant women and advising them not to visit Zika-affected countries out of an abundance of caution. Although the new findings will not change that, CDC officials hope it will drive home the importance of Americans taking appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of Zika virus.

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“We do know that a lot of people aren’t concerned about Zika infection in the United States, and they don’t know a lot about it,” said Sonia Rasmussen, director of CDC’s division of public health information. “It’s my hope that we can be more convincing that Zika does cause these severe birth defects in babies and hope that people will focus on prevention more carefully.”