The Zika virus outbreak has been a major concern for public health officials in the past year, with growing evidence that the virus is not only linked to, but is the cause of a devastating birth defect called microcephaly, characterized by an abnormally small head and brain, often leading to significant developmental issues.
Now, researchers have found more evidence that the mosquito-borne virus may be linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, an immunological reaction that can cause temporary paralysis, according to a small study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Guillain-Barre is an immunological reaction that can occur after a viral or bacterial infection. It can damage nerve cells and cause temporary paralysis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that current research "suggests that GBS [Guillain-Barre syndrome] is strongly associated with Zika" but they are still investigating.
Researchers from multiple institutions, including the University Hospital of Valle in Colombia, examined 68 patients with Guillain-Barre at six hospitals in Colombia to see if a Zika infection could be related to the condition.
Researchers found that 97 percent -- or 66 of the 68 patients -- reported Zika symptoms four weeks before the syndrome developed. The two patients without Zika symptoms were in areas with ongoing Zika transmission. Additionally, 17 patients were found to have genetic material from the Zika virus in their bodies, indicating an active infection, according to the study.
Fifty percent of the patients developed facial paralysis and 31 percent of the patients required mechanical ventilation to stay alive, the study found.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said in a previous interview that experts were concerned about the potential link between the virus and the syndrome long before the widespread Zika outbreak in Central and South America.
"It has concerned us from the beginning. We knew when it was out in the Pacific, when there were outbreaks of Guillain-Barre, it was occurring at the same time," Schaffner said.