Awareness of the Zika virus has spread worldwide. People know it for it’s harmful effects on babies when the virus happens to infect a pregnant women. Yet, researchers have found more evidence that it can also lead to a syndrome which causes temporary and sometimes permanent paralysis.
According to Science Magazine, contracting the Zika virus can cause some people to later develop Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “several countries that have experienced Zika outbreaks have reported increases in people who have Guillain-Barre Syndrome [and] current research suggests GBS is strongly associated with Zika.” The links between the two are still being investigated, but here is what we can tell you about GBS so far.
What is GBS?
Guillain-Barre Syndrome is the result of a multitude of infections which leaves those affected immobile for brief or extended periods of time. After an individual has recovered from the onset of initial symptoms, sudden numbness and weakness of the limbs will eventually follow. This can ultimately lead to partial or complete paralysis.
This syndrome was first documented 100 years ago by the French doctors George Guillain, Jean Alexandre Barre, and Andre Strohl. GBS remained very rare and only appeared at random as far as we know. China had seasonal outbreaks of the virus in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s that left hundreds of children paralyzed every spring and summer.
During this time, Chinese doctors referred to it as “Chinese Paralytic Syndrome”. Guy Mckhann, from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, conducted research on a type of GBS known as AMAN (acute motor axonal neuropathy) while visiting children's hospitals in Beijing in 1990.
He formed a team that dedicated themselves to discovering the cause of these outbreaks. After doing extensive research and animal testing, they found evidence that it was coming from chickens. “Heavy spring rains washed chicken waste from outdoor coops into village streams where children drank and played. The waste was contaminated with Campylobacter jejuni, and many children fell ill.” After this discovery, local governments took the necessary steps to clean the drinking water and the outbreaks ceased.
Treatments for GBS
So far doctors have developed 3 main treatments for GBS.
- The first form of treatment is immunoglobulin, a mix of antibodies from healthy donors which are used to block rogue antibodies.
- The second form is treating patients with plasma exchange, in which the body’s red blood cells are separated from the plasma and then returned to the body without it.
- Finally, patients are put through physical therapy during recovery to help them regain strength in their limbs.
How Zika and GBS are Connected
In several countries the number of GBS cases have increased specifically in the locations that Zika outbreaks have recently occurred. Hundreds of cases have occurred in Latin America just in recent months. Researchers conducted a study on 42 cases of GBS that took place during an outbreak in French Polynesia and found evidence in the blood of the patients of antibodies related to Zika. Researchers are also investigating whether certain genes play into patients being more susceptible to GBS.
There are currently no methods of prevention for GBS other than taking normal precautions against getting infections. In most cases, patients have fully recovered from the syndrome, though it proves to be a long process to do so. After 6 months 80% of patients are able to walk again without any assistance. After 1 year, about 60% have regained their full strength, and a minimal amount of patients have taken years to recover.