May 10, 2016

Cornell Health Experts to Conduct Zika Study for World Health Organization

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Global health experts Prof. Julia Finkelstein, epidemiology and nutrition, and Prof. Saurabh Mehta, global health, epidemiology and nutrition, will lead an international team of researchers studying the risk of transmitting the Zika virus through breastfeeding, according to a University press release.

The World Health Organization will use the team’s research to inform its guidelines for feeding infants during a Zika outbreak, the University said.

This announcement came shortly after the professors, with Susannah Colt grad and other WHO researchers, released a study on May 2 that was unable to determine if breastfeeding alone can transmit the virus, the University reported.

The study concluded that “more evidence is needed to distinguish breastfeeding transmission from other transmission routes [around the time of birth],” such as labor and pregnancy.

Researchers have nevertheless established that Zika — a mosquito-borne infection — is “associated with an increase in central nervous system malformations and newborn microcephaly cases,” the study said.

Microcephaly leads to abnormally small heads in infants and has also been linked to intellectual disabilities, seizures and developmental delay, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

One complication with diagnosing Zika-associated microcephaly is that Zika is frequently asymptomatic in mothers, Finkelstein said in the release.

“Since the mother most often doesn’t show any symptoms, the potential numbers for how many mothers are really infected could be much greater,” she said.

Finkelstein estimated that while only one in 100 cases of a mother carrying Zika results in infant microcephaly, one in five cases may cause other complications — such as congenital abnormalities and brain malformations — according to the University.

In the release, both researchers stressed that the literature linking breastfeeding and Zika transmission is still in its beginning stages, but Mehta expressed optimism that research on the topic will grow.

“We anticipate that people are going to start actively looking at Zika virus infection and breastfeeding transmission as better diagnostics become available and as knowledge about it is increasing around the world,” Mehta said.