Devastating consequences of Zika virus infection are suffered in the womb, where the virus can cause brain damage and sometimes death.

Studying pregnant mice, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have learned that the Zika virus infects the fetus by manipulating the body’s normal barrier to infection. Moreover, they showed that a malaria drug that interferes with this process protects the fetus from viral infection. That drug already is approved for use in pregnant women for other medical purposes.

“We found that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine effectively blocks viral transmission to the fetus,” said senior author Indira Mysorekar, PhD, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, and of pathology and immunology. “This drug already is used in pregnant women to treat malaria, and we suggest that it warrants evaluation in primates and women to diminish the risks of Zika infection and disease in developing fetuses.”


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The findings are published July 10 in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.

In late 2015, doctors in Brazil began to notice a surge in the number of babies born with microcephaly, or unusually small heads, an indicator of neurological damage. The epidemic soon was linked to the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which was spreading through the tropical parts of the Americas. Doctors advised pregnant women to avoid mosquito bites by wearing bug spray and long-sleeved clothing, but had little other advice to offer. There were, and still are, no drugs or vaccines approved for use in pregnant women to protect them or their fetuses from Zika infection.

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