The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday that pregnant women carrying the Zika virus could give birth to babies with congenital disabilities resulting from the disease.

The CDC identified 2,549 pregnant women with Zika in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories between Jan. 1, 2016 and April 25, 2017. They found that around 5 percent of these women gave birth to babies with defects such as small heads (microcephaly), brain abnormalities and other severe birth defects. The CDC did not disclose whether those children were born in Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories.

Image credit: Above Whispers
Image credit: Above Whispers

The federal health agency said Puerto Rico reported over 3,300 pregnant women with laboratory evidence of possible Zika virus infection. The CDC worked alongside the Puerto Rico Department of Health and analyzed data from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System Zika Postpartum Emergency Response survey, which was conducted on the island.

Pregnant women with Zika had babies with birth abnormalities across U.S. territories

The survey from Puerto Rico showed that 98.1 percent of women reported using at least one measure to avoid mosquitos in their homes, but only 45.8 percent of them reported wearing mosquito repellent daily, and 11.5 percent said wearing shirts with long sleeves and pants every day.

Over one-third of the women surveyed, 38.5 percent, reported abstaining from sex or using condoms throughout their pregnancies, and 76.9 percent reported being tested for Zika virus during the first or second trimester of gestation.

The CDC also published a report with the numbers of pregnant women with the Zika virus who gave birth to babies with congenital disabilities. The agency identified 122 children who were born with birth defects across all U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Federated States of Micronesia and Marshall Islands.

Image credit: My Daily Dose
Image credit: My Daily Dose

In April, health experts said that Puerto Rico was underreporting Zika-affected births to downplay the scale of the Zika problem. By April, Puerto Rico had reported only 16 cases of congenital defects linked to Zika, even though over 3,300 pregnant women were infected with the virus. However, U.S. states and the District of Columbia, where the Zika virus is not nearly as present as it is in Puerto Rico, reported congenital defects in 63 newborns or fetuses among 1,300 pregnant women who contracted the Zika virus.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the CDC, said she’s confident that health officials in U.S. territories are now fully reporting its cases to the federal health agency. Puerto Rico is not required to publish its figures using CDC guidelines. The CDC said it would blend the Puerto Rico numbers with any cases reported from other U.S. territories for an “assurance of privacy,” Schuchat told reporters.

Puerto Rico claims its Zika outbreak is over, CDC thinks otherwise

Earlier this week Puerto Rico announced that the Zika outbreak had ended. The territory has been struggling to attract tourists ever since the outbreak was announced. Schuchat said that the number of cases had indeed decreased sharply since the peak of the epidemic, but during a telephone news conference, she noted that the CDC does not really feel the period of risk is over. She added that another mosquito season is on the way.

Both studies were published in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The scientists noted that the findings were consistent with previously reported data from the 50 U.S. states regarding primarily travel-associated Zika infections during pregnancy, in which they pointed out that about one in 20 fetuses or infants had possible Zika-associated birth defects.

Image credit: BBC News
Image credit: BBC News

Scientists have had trouble assessing the actual risk of Zika to pregnant women, as estimates of birth defects have ranged from 1 percent of pregnancies to over 10 percent. The new report from the CDC, however, offers more data on the problem and shows that there is an actual link between pregnant women with the Zika virus and babies born with congenital disabilities. The report found that even infected women without symptoms of the Zika virus were at risk of giving birth to children with abnormalities.

Not all birth defects are identified immediately

The researchers noted that women whose infections were identified in the first trimester of pregnancy had a slightly higher risk, around 8 percent overall. However, the report also said that women who were identified later in their pregnancy were also at a significant risk of having a baby with abnormalities.

According to Schuchat, not all birth defects are recognized immediately at birth, so it’s vital for doctors to follow up with babies whose mothers had the Zika virus. Along with microcephaly, the children may have brain malformations, eye problems or neurological damage.

“Understanding health behaviors of pregnant women during the Zika outbreak can inform programs and initiatives that seek to prevent Zika virus infection and promote testing of pregnant women in Puerto Rico,” wrote the researchers on the report.

The researchers added that the illuminates gaps in the use of preventive measures that could be reinforced during prenatal care visits and through public communication campaigns.

Source: CDC