By Dr. Maria Simbra

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – There’s a growing concern about an old virus and whether it’s now causing birth defects.

There’s been an increase in cases in some countries, but cases are starting to show up in the United States.

In Brazil, thousands of babies have been born with a birth defect called microcephaly.

At the moment, health officials are concerned it’s related to the old, but rare, Zika virus.

“This is a novel idea. This is a whole new concern,” West Penn Hospital OBGYN Dr. Paul Weinbaum said.

It can cause fever, rash, joint pain, even pink eye, but many times there are no symptoms as all.

“Few cases, mild infection, nobody thought much of it,” Dr. Weinbaum said.

People are thinking about it now because microcephaly is usually an infrequent condition. These babies are born with abnormally small heads. This often implies other problems with neurologic development.

“So, the most common causes of microcephaly are chromosomal abnormalities, there can be congenital infection, but more of the more common kinds like cytomegalovirus, toxoplasmosis,” Dr. Weinbaum said.

Doctors in Brazil are seeing a twenty-fold increase from the year before.

“There have been people who have gone so far as to recommend that women not get pregnant. That’s probably extreme at this point,” Dr. Weinbaum said. “They’ve seen it in the placenta, they’ve confirmed the infection in the mother. But again, just because the virus is there it doesn’t mean this is cause and effect.”

Zika virus has been around for about 60 years and originated in Africa. The thought is that the virus came to Brazil during recent World Cup competition and is spread by mosquitos.

While it may be sounding alarms on the other side of the world, there are concerns about it creeping northward. It has been noted in Puerto Rico, and recently in Texas, Hawaii, and Florida. Although in both American cases, it’s believed the virus was contracted in Brazil.

There is no treatment and no vaccine for Zika virus.

The CDC has issued a travel alert for pregnant women, but if you must travel to areas where Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases — like dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile disease — are common, take precautions.

“Proper insect repellent, if they’re out in the woods. Mosquito netting if that’s required. We don’t have the same kind of problem like they do in other countries,” Dr. Weinbaum said.

Because this is new, it’s not clear if the virus still poses a risk once it has run its course. But, with other infections that cause microcephaly, its active infection in the mom that is risky.

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Dr. Maria Simbra