While the Zika virus in pregnant women is known to diversely affect the development of the foetus, it is also believed to trigger a rare, debilitating medical condition named the Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) that progressively damages the nervous system. A sudden spike in GBS cases have been reported in parts of the world already hit by Zika, further strengthening a suspected link between them which first originated in 2014. GBS is known to occur most likely a few days after a patient complains of gastrointestinal or respiratory infections.
Zika is prevalent in territories where the carrier Aedes aegypti mosquito thrives. The very first case of GBS following a Zika infection was reported in French Polynesia during an epidemic in 2014 when both Zika as well as type 1 and 3 dengue stuck simultaneously. Being the first incident of Zika-induced GBS, there was, however, not much evidence to establish the link beyond doubt. Genetic evolution of the virus or susceptibility of local population seemed a more logical conclusion. However, it also was felt that being affected by dengue and later by Zika may have also been a predisposing factor for GBS to develop in this specific instance.
It is worth noting that during the outbreak of Zika/ dengue epidemic in French Polynesia, GBS cases reportedly spiked 20 times.
Since 2014, Zika has created a flutter across several countries in South and Central America, and also extended its reach to other parts of world, thanks to globetrotters returning to their home turfs.
Early this year, El Salvador also reported a spurt in GBS, thrice the average number, incidentally overlapping with an increase in Zika infections as well. Approximately, over 3000 cases of Zika and 46 GBS cases were recorded over a month's time.
Statistics reveal that 164,237 cases of Zika infections and 1,474 cases of GBS were reported in South and Central America between April 2015 and May 2016, with GBS in males 28 percent higher than their female counterparts. Are men more prone to GBS? We're yet to know.
Recent evidence of the Zika - GBS connection is probably the most clinching yet. The study conducted by a team headed by Carlos Pardo from John Hopkins, involving 68 patients from six hospitals in Columbia has reported that 66 of them suffered from Zika symptoms prior to developing GBS. Other notable results include the facts that 40 percent of the 42 patients tested for Zika had an active virus, and nearly 50 percent of the participants felt neurological symptoms within four days of experiencing Zika symptoms. It sure seems that Zika can trigger GBS, but the speedy development of symptoms is a cause of concern.
It is believed that further studies can establish the association between Zika and GBS beyond doubt.
Zika has now entered America and parts of Africa as well. In addition to the brain damage it can cause in the human foetus, looks like Zika is also capable of inducing GBS.
Given the fact that GBS is a progressive neuro-disorder where one's own immune system destroys the nerve cells, it can manifest in several ways ranging from temporary paralysis to severe neuromotor issues, even requiring life supports systems to tide over respiratory problems. Extreme cases can lead to loss of life. Probably the good news is that not all people affected by Zika develop GBS. Plasma and immunoglobulin transfusions can help counter GBS to some extent.
While there is no cure for Zika at present, there are three new vaccines being developed and under different stages of testing. Reportedly, these can protect monkeys from Zika, but their effectiveness in humans needs to be ascertained. The vaccine must also be able to offer long-term protection from Zika.
Researchers continue to explore the causal association between Zika and GBS in an attempt to better understand the trigger mechanism. In the meanwhile, addressing mosquito menace suitably can help minimize the possibility of contracting Zika!