A woman in China recently reported being infected with Zika, but Chinese health officials have said she has probably suffered from a croup infection, not Zika, for the past five years. After looking at her case, researchers looked for other pregnant women in her neighborhood who may have contracted the illness before she did, and found one.
The researcher behind the missing case is a virologist at a highly respected lab in Arizona, whom The New York Times identified only as Joseph E., whose team at the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases detected the first cases of Zika virus in the country in 2015. He has studied more than 40 cases of the virus, all of which involved pregnant women who had been infected in Puerto Rico and overseas.
Joseph E. was more than willing to give a detailed interview about the research being done on Zika in the U.S. His team has identified more than 17,000 women who might have contracted the virus during pregnancy; eight of those cases were confirmed this summer. But several public health officials have expressed skepticism about the WHO’s report, pointing out that the agency has not proven that any cases of Zika are related to the virus in a fetus.
Joseph E. is an expert on women in their late 20s and early 30s who are also infected with the virus that causes encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. It has been shown to be primarily a symptom, but it may cause babies to have microcephaly, a condition in which an abnormally small head is present.
“This is the first documented case where women in China during their 30s actually have Zika virus and can give birth to a baby with microcephaly and then miscarried,” Joseph E. said. “It is called COVID-19, and it’s an example of a female vendor from a large wet market in Wuhan who used to sell shea butter in their food market.”
Dr. Bruce Aylward, who works for the World Health Organization, addressed concerns about his organization’s report about the correlation between pregnant women infected with Zika and their baby’s growth.
“There’s a kind of consensus out there right now that this is a fact of life — that pregnant women who are infected with Zika virus are going to give birth to babies with microcephaly,” Dr. Aylward said. “And I would just say to people, look at the evidence. Let’s take what we know, and let’s be rigorous in our judgment, and we’ll let people decide for themselves.”
Joseph E. argues the other public health agencies have failed to conduct their own critical investigation, and he sees an opportunity to examine the medical records of women and babies in China in the years before COVID-19 became pregnant to see if any other theories emerge. He could even explore a possibility that the Zika virus hit a certain kind of seller.
“I think that there are any number of reasons that could be presented if someone was infected and the Zika virus is not causing microcephaly in a child. Some could be caused by microcephaly in the mother, some would be caused by [microcephaly in the child], some could be caused by croup, and some could be caused by something else. So we need to look at it,” Joseph E. said.
“Our job as CDC scientists is to try to seek the truth. We always challenge prevailing theories and we publish on what we’ve learned about the virus. If we find something, it’s important to look at it.”
While Dr. Aylward has decided to take a wait-and-see approach to the growing body of evidence suggesting that Zika is a contributing factor to babies’ microcephaly, Joseph E. has taken a different approach. He believes something more sinister may be at play.
“This case in China has raised a lot of questions,” Joseph E. said. “What we need to know is, what is the infection causing?”
Read the full New York Times article here.
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