RIO DE JANEIRO — The Zika virus, which has already been linked to over 4,000 cases of debilitating brain damage in infants in Brazil, may also be linked to a life-threatening syndrome that could render patients paralysed, doctors there warned.

As the country most affected by the mosquito-borne virus in the Americas, Brazil has already observed an almost 1800% increase in cases of microcephaly — an incurable, debilitating condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads — making an almost-clear link between the rare condition and the Zika outbreak. Now doctors are raising an equally-grim alarm following a similar surge in cases of the previously-rare Guillain-Barré syndrome, in which patients’ immune systems attack their nerves, rendering them paralysed.

The comorbidity of microcephaly in infants — which occurs when their mothers are infected with Zika during pregnancy — has already caused panic in Brazil and throughout the Caribbean, and has put a new dimension to the scourge of the otherwise-mild febrile illness. Officials in Brazil and Jamaica have advised women to delay pregnancy, while the US Embassy in Barbados has reportedly recalled its pregnant staff members to the United States.

Zika’s possible association with Guillain-Barré syndrome extends the public health crisis even further. “It can be a nightmare for those who have it,” Dr. Wellington Galvão, a hematologist in Zika-hit Maceió in Brazil told the New York Times. “I estimate that Zika increases by about 20 times the probability that an individual can get Guillain-Barré,” he said.

For now, the US Center for Disease Control is remaining cautious, urging that further research needs to be done before a clear link is established between Zika and Guillain-Barré. 

Within the Caribbean, local transmission of Zika has been recorded in Barbados, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Haiti, Martinique, Suriname, Saint Martin and Puerto Rico. No incidences of microcephaly or Guillain-Barré syndrome following Zika infection have been reported thus far in the Caribbean, but Colombia, Venezuela and El Salvador have mirrored the Brazil experience.

Weakness, facial numbness and tingling in patients’ extremities are usually the first symptoms of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which — in the Brazilian cases — occurred days after recovery from Zika infection. These sensations quickly spread, and in the syndrome’s most severe form the patient will be completely paralysed, requiring hospitalisation and life-support therapy. Most people make full recoveries from the syndrome, while others experience lingering effects of weakness, numbness and fatigue.

Doctors speaking to AMG were firm to note that Guillain-Barré syndrome has also been associated with Dengue Fever and the Chikungunya viruses, both of which are transmitted, like Zika, through the Aedes Egypti mosquito. It is unclear whether the syndrome’s spike in Brazil and parts of Latin America are suggestive of a higher probability for acquiring Guillain-Barré syndrome after Zika infection.

The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) is expected to articulate the regional response to Zika next week, as residents in affected states are being asked to take all precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

Zika may be linked to deadly Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Jovan Reid

Jovan Reid is AMG's consultant advisor on public policy and media advocacy, focusing on issues in public health, sustainability and climate change.

Category: Health