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1 in 7 Zika babies born with defects in US territories

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Tampa (AFP)

About one in seven babies who were exposed to the Zika virus in the womb have at least one developmental defect a year later, said a US study Tuesday.

The rate of defects -- about 14 percent -- represents more than 30 times the level expected in infants that were not exposed to the mosquito-borne virus, officials with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Defects included small head size -- known as microcephaly -- brain or eye damage, seizures, and developmental delays, said the CDC Vital Signs report, the largest study to date on outcomes of babies born to mothers who were infected with Zika during pregnancy.

"Some of these problems were not apparent at birth and were identified as the babies grew older," said the report, which included more than 4,800 pregnancies that had positive lab tests for Zika in the US territories of American Samoa, Micronesia, Puerto Rico, Marshall Islands, and US Virgin Islands from 2016-2018.

The report focused on the US territories, which were hardest hit by the outbreak, and did not include US mainland cases.

"From these pregnancies, 1,450 babies were at least one year old and had some follow-up care reported for this analysis," it said.

The rate of Zika-related birth defects is on par with prior studies in Brazil and other areas that were hard hit by Zika, said Peggy Honein, director of CDC's Division of Congenital and Developmental Disorders.

A massive outbreak of Zika swept Latin America and the Caribbean beginning in 2015, eventually reaching 86 countries in the Americas and Africa.

The last known case of local transmission of Zika on the US mainland was in 2017, with two cases in Florida and five in Texas, officials said.

Zika virus can cause a rash, headaches and muscle aches but is particularly dangerous to pregnant women because it has been proven to cause birth defects, including damage to the fetus's brain and nervous system.

"The Zika story is not yet over. We are still learning more every day about the full impact of these infections," said Honein.

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