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Study Finds Zika May Be Linked to Birth Defect

(CN) - Researchers in Brazil believe they've found a link between the Zika virus and a potentially deadly birth defect, although the World Health Organization said proof of the link is still months away.

The suspected connection between the virus and microcephaly - which causes reduced head size, brain damage and potential death for babies born with the condition - has terrified parents, Latin America and the Caribbean for several months now, though has not yet been linked scientifically.

But scientists at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro mapped Zika's genome sequence and found more evidence the disease is related to microcephaly. The genetic data will also help researchers develop effective tests and eventually a Zika vaccine

"What we know now may help us understand why the virus has chosen children's brain cells over those of adults - the pregnant women," Professor Renato Santana told Agencia Brasil.

Brazil's health ministry believes that most of the mothers who had babies diagnosed with "microcephaly and/or changes in the central nervous system suggesting congenital infection" had Zika.

The scientists are also considering the possibility that the virus may also cause other fetal deformities.

While the Brazilian researchers' findings are significant, the World Health Organization and other groups warned definitive proof of a connection between Zika and microcephaly is still several months away due to a lack of evidence and clinical studies.

"It will probably be four, five, six months," Dr. Bruce Aylward, the WHO's executive director for outbreaks and health emergencies, said on Feb. 19. "At this time, the virus is considered guilty until proven innocent."

Researchers hope that a Colombian study involving over 5,000 pregnant women will bring clarity to Zika, its connection to other conditions and how to stop it.

On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began a study to help determine if Zika leads to microcephaly. The CDC's involvement could validate the Rio de Janeiro researchers' findings.

Data collection is expected to last weeks, and the CDC and Brazil's health ministry hope to recruit more than 100 mothers to participate in the study.

"There's a lot of anxiety out there and people really want to understand what's going on," Brazilian health official Priscila Leita told the Associated Press. "We expect high recruitment numbers."

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