By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Photo of a mosquito

A stillborn baby delivered to a Brazilian woman infected with Zika may indicate the virus causes a wider range of birth defects than originally believed.

The fetus showed a severe buildup of fluid throughout its body, a condition called hydrops fetalis. It also had a near-complete absence of brain tissue, according to a new study that may be the first to link the virus and damage beyond the developing brain.

The Zika virus causes mild illness or no symptoms in most people. But Brazilian officials believe there may be a link to microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and often, because of it, brain damage.

In the case of the Brazilian stillborn child born in January, the virus may also have led to previously undiscovered problems.

“These finding raise concerns that the virus may cause severe damage to fetuses leading to stillbirths and may be associated with effects other than those seen in the central nervous system,” Albert Ko, a co-author of the study released last Thursday in PLOS Neglected Tropic Diseases, said in a news release.

“Additional work is needed to understand if this is an isolated finding and to confirm whether Zika virus can actually cause hydrops fetalis,” the abnormal accumulation of fluid in fetal cavities including the heart, lungs and abdomen.

The mother in Zo’s report was a 20-year-old woman who didn’t show any symptoms of Zika, which can include fever, rash or body aches. She appeared to be healthy during her first trimester.

An ultrasound during her 18th week of pregnancy revealed that the woman’s fetus was underweight. Additional ultrasounds in later trimesters determined “severe microcephaly” along with hydranencephaly – a condition resulting in the loss of tissue in the brain’s cerebral hemispheres. Doctors induced labor at 32 weeks after it was determined that the fetus was stillborn.

“This case report provides evidence that in addition to microcephaly, there may be a link between Zika virus infection and hydrops fetalis and fetal demise,” the research paper said.

The Zika outbreak throughout Central and South American nations has led various health leaders to suggest behavioral changes in attempts to control the epidemic. In Brazil, Colombia and other nations, some officials have urged women not to get pregnant until doctors have a better understanding of how Zika interferes with the developing brains of babies.

Pope Francis also told citizens of the primarily Roman Catholic countries that using artificial contraception may be morally acceptable in fighting the Zika virus.

In the United States, no local mosquito-borne transmissions of the Zika virus have been reported, but the Centers for Disease Control confirms 107 travel-related Zika cases as of Feb. 24. In the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and America Samoa, the CDC says 39 people have been stricken by Zika locally.

With the recent outbreaks, the CDC predicts the number of Zika cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States “will likely increase.”