You likely recall hearing about the famed “Zika Virus” last year. Despite it having been around for decades, it gained global attention when it appeared to be linked to a rare brain deformity in newborn babies. We don’t yet know everything about Zika; however, as more studies are being performed, we are learning about the virus as well as its long-term impacts. The most recent discovery is a link between the virus and hearing loss.
Here’s what we know, as reported by the Center for Disease Control (CDC):
- The virus has been reported in the United States
- There is no known medication
- The virus originates largely via mosquito bites, specifically infected Aedes mosquitos
- Zika can sadly be passed from a pregnant mother to her fetus, and it can also lead to congenital disabilities
- The virus can be transmitted sexually (vaginal, anal, oral sex plus the sharing of sex toys)
- Semen retains the virus longer than other body fluids
The CDC has also designated several areas worldwide that have the highest propensity for the virus, these include (but are not limited to):
- Florida, Texas
- Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico
- Brazil, India, Indonesia, Philippines
- Sudan, Tanzania
Because the virus is still so new to us, we have a long road ahead to fully understand its full consequences as well as those that could be long term. Research has begun, and is a top priority, especially in the geographic areas of greatest risk.
- In Brazil, one study has revealed that the symptoms related to hearing outlast other symptoms. And we don’t yet know if the damage is permanent. This ten-patient study has shown that one of the symptoms is a significant hearing loss.
- The American Academy of Audiology has been studying newborns and infants of mothers who showed virus symptom during pregnancy. One noted tendency is an unusually small cranium, called microcephaly. Having a smaller head isn’t the primary concern, what’s particularly alarming is the fact that as a brain grows, the skull also increases proportionately, so a small head may be indicative of potential brain damage. Another brain related issue, beyond the brain’s size, is an absence of folds and ridges. This means that there is less room for neuron formation during the second, third and fourth months of pregnancy. That period is critical neuron growth that cannot be made up later during pregnancy.
- There is also evidence that calcifications on infant’s brains lead to a lack of neurons and cochlear nerve damage. The cochlear is what produces nerve impulses in response to sound vibrations. Infant hearing loss may be apparent at birth, and it may also occur later.
Certainly, the best prevention is to avoid travel to the areas ranked red or yellow by the CDC; however, we understand that may not be possible. Other prevention methods include:
- Protection from mosquito bites by using insect repellant as recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency
- Use of condoms with all sexual partners
- If you are pregnant, try to postpone travel to the ranked areas
We still have more questions than answers; however, stopping the further spread is essential. If there is any chance that you have contracted the virus, please take immediate action to see your healthcare provider and hearing professional. If you have recently been pregnant, your child should also see a hearing doctor soon after birth. Early detection is critical.