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Scientists push to find clues to Zika virus

February 11, 2016

The world's top scientists have pledged to share quickly and freely all data, research and expertise into the Zika virus in a bid to combat the disease. Even as cases increase, much remains unknown about the virus.

Stechmücke Zika Virus Labor in Österreich
Image: Reuters/L. Foeger

Top research institutions, funders and publishers said in a statement on Wednesday they would come together to share data in response to the public health emergency posed by the rapid spread of the Zika virus.

"The arguments for sharing data and the consequences of not doing so [have been] ... thrown into stark relief by the Ebola and Zika outbreaks," the signatories wrote. "In the context of a public health emergency of international concern, there is an imperative on all parties to make any information available that might have value in combating the crisis."

The pledge was signed by the journals "Nature," "Science" and "The Lancet," the Chinese Academy of Sciences, France's Institut Pasteur, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development, among others.

Much remains unknown about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has caused international alarm, especially in Latin America and its epicenter in Brazil.

Scientists are investigating links between the virus and newborn babies with microcephaly, which causes children to be born with unusually small heads, and can lead to death or developmental problems. A link between the virus and microcephaly has not been definitively confirmed but is suspected. There is no vaccine for the disease, which in most cases only causes mild flu-like symptoms.

Infografik Microcephaly Englisch

The publication of scientific and medical research findings in peer-reviewed journals is traditionally a long and slow process, hampering the rapid international response needed during a global health emergency.

A study published in the "New England Journal of Medicine" on Wednesday strengthened the case of a link between the virus and the birth defect after the Zika was found in the brain of an aborted fetus of a European woman who had become pregnant while living in Brazil.

Brasilien Zika Virus
A new study strengthened the case for a link between Zika and microcephalyImage: DW/D. Bowater

Zika and abortion

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization on Wednesday issued guidance to women on how to protect themselves from the virus, even as it said most women in areas where the virus in prevalent would have "normal infants."

The UN agency, which declared a health emergency on February 1, advised women, especially those who are pregnant, to take precautions against mosquitoes and to use condoms during intercourse. The spread of the virus has also been linked to sexual contact.

The spread of the virus through sexual contact and the link with microcephaly have raised the issue of abortion, especially in Latin America where the practice is widely restricted and the Roman Catholic Church holds considerable sway. According to Church doctrine, life begins at conception and condom use is prohibited.

WHO on Wednesday said, "women who wish to terminate a pregnancy due to a fear of microcephaly should have access to safe abortion services to the full extent of the law."

The UN health body said early ultrasounds cannot detect microcephaly, "except in extreme cases." This is significant because even in countries where abortion is legal, there are often restrictions on its use beyond a certain time in the pregnancy.

cw/sms (AFP. Reuters)