Zika May Cause Guillain-Barré Syndrome, Too

Time to decimate the mosquito population? Photo: LUIS ROBAYO/Getty Images

It was a Brazilian obstetrician who first linked Zika virus to microcephaly in fetuses, and although that link is still unproven, so far that’s where most reports on the virus have focused their attention. Now a study published in the British medical journal the Lancet suggests Zika might be to blame for more than birth defects. Evidence gathered during a 2013–14 outbreak in French Polynesia suggests a link to a severe neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which means the current global outbreak is as dangerous for men as it is for expectant mothers.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Guillain-Barré syndrome is “a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.” Its direct cause is unknown, but it begins with a tingling sensation and can progress until certain muscles are completely paralyzed. It can affect anybody, it’s not contagious, and most patients recover, although some may retain “a certain degree of weakness.” 

In the study, researchers tested the blood of 42 patients with GBS at the Centre Hospitalier de Polynésie Française. Of those, 41 (or 98 percent) had Zika-neutralizing antibodies in their system. Because the body only produces antibodies as a reaction to infection, researchers could conclude that almost all GBS patients had been infected with Zika. What’s more, most patients (88 percent) who contracted GBS reported that they’d experienced Zika symptoms in the last six days.

Researchers then compared these GBS patients with a control group, of whom only 56 percent were carrying Zika-neutralizing antibodies — a markedly lower number than GBS patients. Although those results seem to suggest a strong link between Zika and GBS, researchers are careful to note that theirs is the first study linking the two and that more research is needed to corroborate it. “The results of our study support that Zika virus should be added to the list of infectious pathogens susceptible to cause Guillain-Barré syndrome,” the study reads. “As Zika virus is spreading rapidly across the Americas, at-risk countries need to be prepared to have adequate intensive care beds capacity to manage patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome.” That army of robot mosquitoes is sounding better and better.