Zika virus has been causing major health problems in Brazil and other South American nations. Now, health officials are investigating whether the disease is also associated with a rare paralysis condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS).

Brazil has witnessed a rise in GBS cases. During the entire 2014, cases in Rio Grande do Norte state totaled to 23. However, from January to August 2015, the state was able to report 33 cases already.

Brazilian hematologist Dr. Wellington Galvão says the average number of patients he treats for GBS is around 10 to 15 per year. In 2015, he treated a total of 43 patients.

The country's ministry of health said in December 2015 that it was looking at whether the changes in rates are caused by Zika [pdf].

The Pan American Health Organization has also acknowledged the increase in GBS cases in areas where Zika virus is present. The organization notes, however, that there has been no direct causal relationship established between the two. "Several studies are underway to better establish the relationship between Zika and GBS," the PAHO news release reads.

GBS is an autoimmune disorder characterized by attacks to the nervous system. The disorder may be caused by an infection with different bacteria or viruses. Patients with GBS experience muscular weakness that spreads to the arms and legs and even to the respiratory muscles, causing difficulty of breathing and severe complications.

Zika virus is a mosquito-borne virus transmitted mainly by Aedes aegypti, which also spreads dengue fever and chikungunya. Approximately 80 percent of people infected with the virus do not show signs and symptoms. For those who do have clinical manifestations, they usually experience fever, rash and joint pains that last for about a week. Deaths and severe cases that need hospital admissions are rare.

What's alarming with Zika virus is its significant effects on newborn babies. In the past year, about 4,000 cases of brain damage in babies have been documented in Brazil. The babies are said to have unusually small heads.

CDC has already developed guidelines for American health providers regarding appropriate care for pregnant women in the face of Zika virus outbreak. Authorities have also advised pregnant women to not travel to countries where the virus is spreading.

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