Yes, the mosquito-borne Zika virus causes birth defects.
It has long been speculated that the Zika virus, which currently ravages through South America and has now spread to over 40 countries and territories, causes the rare birth defect microcephaly and other fetal abnormalities.
The link was suspected based on the rising number of birth defects in countries where the disease has hit the hardest. Now, U.S. federal officials have finally confirmed: the infection causes abnormalities in babies who were born to infected mothers.
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) said that there is now sufficient evidence to definitely link the Zika virus to microcephaly, a rare disease that causes affected babies to have small heads.
In a CDC analysis, which reviewed the evidence that link Zika and fetal abnormalities and which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on April 13, CDC director of public health information and dissemination Sonja Rasmussen and colleagues confirmed the dangers posed by Zika to unborn babies of infected mothers.
"On the basis of this review, we conclude that a causal relationship exists between prenatal Zika virus infection and microcephaly and other serious brain anomalies," Rasmussen and colleagues wrote. "Given the recognition of this causal relationship, we need to intensify our efforts toward the prevention of adverse outcomes caused by congenital Zika virus infection."
CDC director Thomas Frieden said that this is the first time that a mosquito-borne virus has been associated with congenital brain defects, and the confirmation should settle debate about the connection between the mosquito-borne virus and birth defects, as well as other neurological conditions.
"It is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly," Frieden said. "We've now confirmed what mounting evidence has suggested, affirming our early guidance to pregnant women and their partners to take steps to avoid Zika infection and to health care professionals who are talking to patients every day."
Health experts, however, acknowledged that there are still a number of questions about Zika virus that remain unanswered. For one, it is still unknown why some pregnant women who were infected with Zika did not bear babies with microcephaly, which necessitates more studies.
Frieden and other agency officials have nonetheless expressed their hope that the announcement would increase awareness and concern about the potential threat posed by the virus to Americans who travel to affected countries and those who live in areas where the virus is anticipated to arrive this summer.