Attack on myelin insulation involved in Zika deaths

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Zika, a mosquito-borne disease that has now declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization, has certain similarities to other illnesses that some people may find disturbing.

In Columbia, so far, Zika has caused three deaths and the country’s Health Minister, Alejandro Gaviria, said there was a “causal connection” between Zika, the Guillain-Barré disorder and all three deaths.

Earlier, Brazilian scientists said they had detected for the first time active samples of Zika in urine and saliva but it is not clear whether the virus can be transmitted through bodily fluids.

Martha Lucia Ospina, head of Colombia’s National Health Institute, said: “We have confirmed and attributed three deaths to Zika. In this case, the three deaths were preceded by Guillain-Barré syndrome.”

Whoa! Just a second. Guillain-Barré  syndrome? Yes, this has been described as a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system. It isn’t normally fatal. It is an autoimmune disease caused by the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking the peripheral nerves and damaging their myelin insulation.

And that, as anyone living with, or having a knowledge of, multiple sclerosis will tell you is exactly the same – the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking the nerves’ myelin insulation.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there.

MS has been linked to the Epstein-Barr virus as one of its possible causes. EBV can lead to glandular fever and then, it seems more than likely, to multiple sclerosis.

Meanwhile, Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rapid-onset muscle weakness as a result of damage to the peripheral nervous system. You need to ignore the similarities in the names, it is just a coincidence as Barr and Barré were different scientists.

The precise cause of Guillain-Barré is unknown. According to the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about two-thirds of people with Guillain-Barre develop it soon after they’ve been sick with diarrhoea (US diarrhea) or a respiratory infection. This, according to, suggests that the disorder may be triggered by an improper immune response to the previous illness but other infections have also been associated with Guillain-Barré.

These include: influenza; cytomegalovirus, which is a strain of the herpes virus; Epstein-Barr virus infection or mononucleosis (glandular fever); mycoplasma pneumonia, which is an atypical pneumonia caused by bacteria-like organisms; and HIV or AIDS.

With Guillain-Barré, many people experience changes in sensation or develop pain, followed by muscle weakness beginning in the feet and hands. The symptoms develop over half a day to two weeks. During the acute phase, the disorder can be life-threatening with about a quarter developing weakness of the breathing muscles and requiring mechanical ventilation. Some are affected by changes in the function of the autonomic nervous system, which can lead to dangerous abnormalities in heart rate and blood pressure. Sometimes this immune dysfunction is triggered by an infection.

Diagnosis is usually made based on the signs and symptoms, through the exclusion of alternative causes, and supported by tests such as nerve conduction studies and examination of the cerebrospinal fluid.

Various classifications exist, depending on the areas of weakness, results of nerve conduction studies, and the presence of particular antibodies. It is classified as an acute polyneuropathy.



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