The Health Ministry in Panama confirmed Wednesday that four babies born with microcephaly — a condition that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads — are linked to the Zika virus. The recent cases were part of the total 264 cases of the mosquito-borne infection in the country.
The connection between Zika and microcephaly came to light last fall in Brazil, which has now confirmed more than 1,100 cases of microcephaly that it considers to be related to Zika infections in expecting mothers. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika outbreak, which has spread across Latin America and in Caribbean nations, an international health emergency on Feb. 1.
Panama's Health Ministry said Wednesday that 14 pregnant women have contracted the virus, and six babies who were infected with Zika were born with malformations, including the microcephaly cases, Reuters reported.
The country is "staying alert to the rapid expansion of the Zika virus," Panama's Health Minister Francisco Terrientes reportedly said, calling on citizens to take preventative measures.
As scientists continue to work to solve the mystery behind the treatment of Zika, Brazilian researchers said Wednesday that infecting mosquitoes with a strain of bacteria known as Wolbachia — which live in insect cells and are found in 60 percent of common insects — significantly reduced their ability to transmit the virus. The new study was conducted by researchers at Brazil's Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and published in Cell Host & Microbe.
“We are pretty sure that mosquitoes carrying Wolbachia will have a great impact on Zika transmission in the field,” Luciano A. Moreira, a biologist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, reportedly said.
The study said that the method of infecting the mosquitoes with Wolbachia will involve inserting the bacteria into mosquito eggs, which then pass the bacteria along to the offspring.
"The idea has been to release Aedes mosquitoes with Wolbachia over a period of a few months, so they mate with Aedes mosquitoes ... and over time, replace the mosquito population," senior author Luciano Moreira of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, which is preparing to host the Olympics this summer, said.