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Is Zika Dangerous For Kids? It Probably Depends On The Age

Pregnant women — and those trying to get pregnant — should not travel to places where the Zika virus is circulating. For children, age is a factor.
Alessandro Abel
Getty Images/EyeEm
Pregnant women — and those trying to get pregnant — should not travel to places where the Zika virus is circulating. For children, age is a factor.

Zika may have fallen from headlines, especially with everything going on in politics these days, but the threat remains.

And recommendations for pregnant women haven't changed: Pregnant women — and those trying to get pregnant — should not travel to places where the Zika virus is circulating.

It's just too risky because Zika can cause birth defects.

But what about babies? Or kids? Is it safe to travel with them?

"So we don't have tons of data on that particular question," says Dr. Neil Silverman, at the Center for Fetal Medicine in Los Angeles. But, he says, doctors can offer some recommendations based on what's known about how Zika damages developing brains.

The biggest concern is with infants.

"I would not take a small newborn — under 6 months — to a country at risk for Zika," Silverman says.

Several studies have shown that Zika can damage a fetus's brain in the third trimester. "Even when a mother is infected late in pregnancy, adverse outcomes can occur," Silverman says.

A newborn's brain, at least in terms of development, is similar to that of fetuses late in the third trimester.

The problem is that Zika attacks developing brain cells. They're called neural progenitor cells. And newborns' brains are filled with them, just like the brains of fetuses late in pregnancy.

"So I don't think any of us know quite yet what the break point is from being a newborn or a late pregnancy fetus in terms of Zika's risk," Silverman adds.

By about age 2, many of these developing brain cells are gone. "And the majority of brain development has already occurred," Silverman says.

So Zika's danger is likely reduced. "Kids older than 2 probably don't have any significantly higher risk than an adult who's not pregnant," Silverman says.

Several studies have supported this hypothesis. In particular, a study published in September followed 158 children, under age 18, with Zika.

In all instances, kids had similar symptoms as seen in adults — a rash, fever and joint pain. None of the children developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, which occurs rarely in Zika patients.

Two of the children were hospitalized. One was 4 years old, and the other was only 1 year old. All the children recovered with no apparent long-term damage.

So when traveling with kids above age 2, Zika doesn't really add more risks, especially if you take a few precautions, says Dr. Desiree LaBeaud, an infectious disease pediatrician at Stanford University, who studies mosquito-borne viruses.

"I have three beautiful children and I bring them all over the world with me," LaBeaud says. "I personally think the benefits of traveling with your kids and seeing the world is greater than the risk associated with Zika."

"But we do travel safe!" she exclaims.

That means protecting her kids from mosquito bites. She slathers repellent with DEET on their skin, treats clothes with permethrin and stays in places with screens in the windows.

"Children in general are quite resilient little beings," she says. "So instead of being a fearmonger, I like to tell people, 'A lot of this is in your control, and you can take precautions that will decrease your risk of acquiring any mosquito-borne infection."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michaeleen Doucleff
Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.