In the event of a Zika infection, the placenta is unable to shield a fetus from the disease, a new study has found. Instead of nourishing the growing embryo, it seems to give way for the infection’s growth and journey into the developing brain of the fetus.

Emory University researchers have discovered that the virus can infect and proliferate in immune cells from the placenta without killing them, which could explain how it passes through the placenta to wreak havoc on the developing brain cells of a fetus and cause terrible birth defects.

“Our results substantiate the limited evidence from pathology case reports,” said senior study author and pediatrics professor Dr. Mehul Suthar, emphasizing that little was known about the exact mechanism through which the virus replicates in the placenta.

Related viruses such as dengue, West Nile, and yellow fever rarely transmit from the mother to the fetus, and this is believed to be due to the placenta’s protective role. Zika, Suthar said, has a unique capacity to infect placenta cells and cross its barrier.

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