Zika Virus May Trigger Epilepsy, CDC Researchers Caution in Report

Zika Virus May Trigger Epilepsy, CDC Researchers Caution in Report

In addition to its well-known links to birth defects, Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause epilepsy, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Because the link to epilepsy might not be well known, CDC researchers are calling for more awareness about the issue, which would enable earlier diagnoses and treatment — and potentially prevent some of the developmental disturbances linked to epilepsy in children.

The report, “Enhanced Epilepsy Surveillance and Awareness in the Age of Zika,” builds on previously published case series, which show that about 50% of infants exposed to Zika during pregnancy develop epilepsy. The report was published in the journal JAMA Neurology.

The findings are not surprising because other conditions, in which children are born with similar brain abnormalities, have been linked to epilepsy. Nevertheless, researchers underscored that these publications make it necessary to assess, on a larger scale, how common the complication is.

Zika epilepsy
A poster at Luis Muñóz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, warns passengers about the dangers of Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that can lead to serious birth defects. (Photo credit: Larry Luxner)

The researchers also noted that early diagnosis of epilepsy in infants might lessen some disease outcomes that cause developmental delay.

But because epilepsy symptoms vary, the condition often is diagnosed based on symptom descriptions from caregivers, rather than from a medical examination. If parents and healthcare professionals do not recognize the symptoms of epilepsy in children, Zika-linked cases may not be diagnosed and reported appropriately.

The CDC team consequently suggested measures to improve awareness of the issue. For instance, local health authorities in Zika-affected areas could work together with epilepsy experts to increase awareness and establish surveillance systems. In places where Zika surveillance is already in place, questions about epilepsy and seizures may be added.

According to the report, neurologists play an important role in these efforts. They could contribute by educating healthcare professionals in areas where Zika is endemic. Such education efforts could include epilepsy recognition and disease management training.

Neurologists also could contribute to better knowledge of how common the connection is by raising questions of potential Zika exposure among parents of infants with epilepsy.

A more comprehensive reporting also may assist in the implementation of interventions, as well as support to those affected and their families.

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Magdalena is a writer with a passion for bridging the gap between the people performing research, and those who want or need to understand it. She writes about medical science and drug discovery. She holds an MS in Pharmaceutical Bioscience and a PhD — spanning the fields of psychiatry, immunology, and neuropharmacology — from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

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