Virus linked also to autoimmune disorder, warn Brazilian docs

A patient recovering from the Guillain-Barre syndrome (left) at Rosales National Hospital in San Salvador, on Jan 27, 2016.
A patient recovering from the Guillain-Barre syndrome (left) at Rosales National Hospital in San Salvador, on Jan 27, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO • The Zika virus that has been linked to severe brain damage in infants may also be causing another serious health crisis, Brazilian officials and doctors have warned: hundreds of cases of a rare condition in which patients can be almost completely paralysed for weeks - Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Until recently, the potentially life-threatening syndrome was so rare that Brazil's Health Ministry did not require regional officials to report it. But last year, the authorities in north-east Brazil, the part of the country hit hardest by the Zika virus, counted hundreds of cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, prompting doctors to sound the alarm.

The immune system of patients with Guillain-Barre syndrome attacks part of the nervous system, leaving some patients unable to move and dependent on life support.

"Guillain-Barre can be a nightmare for those who have it," said Dr Wellington Galvao, a haematologist in the city of Maceio in north-east Brazil who treated 43 patients with the syndrome last year, up from an average of 10 to 15 cases in previous years. "I estimate that Zika increases by about 20 times the probability that an individual can get Guillain-Barre," he said.

Shortly after a mosquito infected Ms Patricia Brito with the Zika virus, she knew something was terribly wrong. Soon she could not move her legs. The paralysis spread to her arms, her face and the rest of her body, to the point that doctors put her on a ventilator in an intensive care unit for 40 days.

Researchers caution that more studies are needed to prove the link between Zika and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

A spokesman for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States said that "reports must be treated as anecdotal because little pertinent supporting diagnostic information is available".

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Virus linked also to autoimmune disorder, warn Brazilian docs'. Print Edition | Subscribe