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Zika and Guillain-Barre


As the Zika virus has spread across South America, the focus has primarily been on the impacts of the illness on pregnant women. However, the focus is changing now that French scientists have proven a link between the virus and Guillain-Barre syndrome, or GBS - a condition affecting the nervous syndrome. "GBS is often preceded by an infectious disease," says Gordon Smith, MD, a neurologist with University of Utah Health. "Zika may be one of these infectious triggers."

GBS is characterized by rapidly progressive muscle weakness and numbness. This is caused when the body's immune system begins attacking peripheral nerves. "We think this happens because the immune system responds to a specific part of a virus or bacteria that resembles parts of the peripheral nervous system," says Smith. "The nerves are essentially innocent bystanders in the immune system's attempt to destroy a foreign invader."

The majority of Guillain-Barre syndrome patients have significant muscle weakness. A minority are sufficiently weak that they are unable to breathe on their own and need to be placed on a ventilator until they begin to recover. "That happens in just 15 percent of GBS patients," says Smith.

While Guillain-Barre syndrome is serious and can be life threatening, most patients make a full or near full recovery. The timing of that recovery depends on the extent of the nerve damage. "If there is significant injury to the axons, or nerve wires, recovery may be slow or incomplete," says Smith. "However, if the injury primarily involves the insulation, or myelin sheath, recovery is quicker and more complete."

"85-90 percent of GBS patients are better after a year," he adds.

Guillain-Barre syndrome itself is not contagious. Smith says the best way to avoid the illness is to avoid infectious disease. "Get a flu shot," he says. "If you get the flu, you have a significantly increased risk of getting GBS."