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How the Zika Virus Spreads to a Fetus from an Infected Mother

The human body is full of amazing and complicated systems. One of the most impressive is the woman’s reproductive system. With built-in safeguards, a mother’s body creates a haven for her growing fetus. When it comes to illness, a pregnant mother can become ill and never pass the illness onto her growing fetus. The Zika Virus seems to have defied this safeguard and scientists are asking “why?”

As reported in Forbes, In the case of flaviviruses which includes mosquito-borne diseases like yellow fever, West Nile Virus, and Zika Virus, it is rare for the virus to be passed from one generation to the next. Scientists credit the placenta with creating a barrier between the fetus and the mother’s circulatory systems for this added protection. The discovery of Zika as a cause of microcephaly in infants alerted scientists to the fact that Zika can break through this layer of protection.

What Makes Zika So Problematic?

The Zika Virus has found a way to get through the placental barrier and into fetal tissue in some cases. A group of scientists at Emory University School of Medicine infected the donated placental cells from 5 healthy volunteers. They “found a rise in the activity of genes which produce antiviral molecules in ‘Hofbauer cells’ of the fetal immune system.” The Hofbauer cells are responsible for swallowing and digesting foreign material and have direct access to fetal blood cells. The invasion didn’t kill most cells, a key ingredient in Zika evading detection by the placenta, as this cell death is what cues the immune system to respond. What exactly does this mean? The Zika Virus effectively hijacks Hofbauer cells, allowing it to get past the placenta to infect the brain tissue in the developing fetus.

Hope for Some Pregnant Women

Not all pregnancies of Zika infected patients will result in microcephaly. Some of the donor cells were more susceptible to the Hofbauer cell hijacking than others. Now that scientists have figured out how the virus gets to the fetus they can study and determine the risk factors which can assist in the development of “preventative measures, and eventually antiviral therapies.” According to Mehul Suthar, the immunologist and assistant professor of pediatrics who led the study, genetics, nutrition and timing may influence the likelihood of the infection to transfer to the fetus of an infected pregnant mother.

While many more experiments are needed to confirm the results and determine further risk factors, this study has opened the door for a great deal of more information to be learned about the threat of Zika Virus to pregnant mothers and their babies.