By now, most people have at least heard mention of the word “Zika”, though they may not fully comprehend the extent of the virus and its effects. The Zika virus is spread by the Aedes mosquito, the same genus responsible for transmitting other dangerous diseases. Zika has various symptoms, but for most people, they can contract the Zika virus and be relatively unaffected; they might not even display symptoms. That does not hold true for pregnant women or those who become pregnant after getting Zika. For pregnant women, Zika leads to much more serious complications, but not necessarily for them; for their babies. The main marker of these complications is microcephaly, a neurological disease that prevents a baby’s brain and skull from fully developing.
What does this mean for eye health?
With microcephaly, there are often complications regarding eye health. The baby’s ocular regions may not develop properly, or could degenerate over time, eventually leading to partial or total blindness. Unfortunately, right now it’s unclear whether or not those same issues can occur in babies exposed to Zika, but who are spared microcephaly. Dr. R. V. Paul Chan, a professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences in the UIC College of Medicine, says, “Right now, most people just know about microcephaly…And we do know that in some babies with microcephaly there are also changes in the eye, so we want to know if these eye changes can occur in babies who may have been exposed but for some reason don’t develop microcephaly.”
In Recife, Brazil, an area highly affected by Zika, the Altino Ventura Foundation provides eye services to local patients who may not be able to afford it otherwise. A large amount of their patients are mothers and young children who suffered from the Zika virus. The Venturas, who run the foundation, were the first to study and document the eye issues from Zika. They observed changes to the optic nerve and retina, which appeared in about 55 percent of babies with microcephaly.
After conducting this research, Dr. Camilla Ventura said, “Pregnant women that report symptoms during the first 3 months of gestation have a greater risk of having a baby with ocular findings, as well as babies born with very small head circumference have more chance of having retinal and optic nerve findings.”
What to do now?
In order to have more conclusive results, more research should be performed. Dr. Chan and Dr. Marilyn Miller, another ophthalmology professor at the UIC College of Medicine, will join forces with Drs. Liana and Camila Ventura to study whether or not children born in areas where the Zika virus is prevalent should be screened for possible eye problems, even if they display no initial symptoms of Zika.
These ophthalmologists have received a $30,000 grant from the Blind Children’s Center. The grant allots a year to take time to study Zika and its effects on eye health in Recife, Brazil. Without microcephaly, it’s not immediately apparent whether or not a baby was affected by the Zika virus. Hopefully, with this research, preventative measures can be taken to protect the eyesight of the babies.