Grieving mum urges women to be vigilant about Zika threat

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A woman who contracted Zika while pregnant is warning other women to be vigilant about the disease which can seriously harm unborn babies.

The Finnish woman, who lives in the US, was 11 weeks pregnant in November last year when she and her husband had a holiday in Latin America. 

After returning from the trip the woman, who only wants to be known as Satu, fell ill. She then discovered she had been infected with Zika.

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 Photo: Getty Images

Satu's pregnancy was closely monitored and an MRI scan tragically discovered her unborn baby was suffering from severe brain defects as a result of the infection.

Dr Roberta DeBiasi, from Children's National Health System in Washington, said the MRI results were very bad.

"As the brain develops, there are different layers that develop while the baby is in the womb," Dr DeBiasi told NBC News.

"These were basically absent. There were some zones that were just completely undetectable.

"This particular MRI was so deficient in brain tissue that most people felt this child was extremely unlikely to make it through the pregnancy and unlikely to make it after delivery.

"These were not possible or slight findings. They were severe."

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Images of normal versus Zika-affected MRIs. A: Enlarged, hydropic choroid plexus (arrow). B. Normal profile. C. Normal. D. Colour showing incomplete formation of the brain structure called the corpus callosum. 
Smura, Teemu P/Children's National Health System

Satu and her husband were told if their baby survived the pregnancy, it would be born with profound brain damage. The child would never walk or talk and would need constant 24 hours a day care for their entire life, which would probably be short.

Taking this prognosis into account, Satu and her husband made the heartbreaking decision to end the pregnancy. The termination was carried out at 21 weeks and doctors continued to examine Satu and the remains of the unborn baby.

Their findings were even worse than first expected. Traces of Zika were found in the baby's brain, the placenta, in muscles, the liver, the lungs and spleen.

Satu's case has been reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. She is now determined that others are aware of the heartbreak that Zika can cause pregnant women and their families.

The couple's trip to Mexico, Guatemala and Belize was before the spread of the Zika virus made headlines around the world and also before its links to birth defects were known.

"I had never heard of Zika. There was no reason to suspect Zika," Satu told NBC News.

"If I had known then, I would have protected myself better."

Satu does not remember being bitten by a mosquito, but she and her husband fell ill shortly after returning from the trip.

"I thought I had caught the flu or a cold on the airplane. I was just a bit more tired than usual," she told NBC. She then developed a rash on her chest, then her face and arms.

Initially a doctor in the US told Satu not to worry about her symptoms, but she then tested positive for Zika during a trip to visit family in Finland at Christmas.

"You always remain hopeful," Satu said. "Even when I found out my symptoms matched the Zika disease, I wanted to find out the worst case scenario. Of course it was dreadful, but even in the midst of the horror you think there is a small chance it will be okay."

Things didn't work out okay in Satu's case, and now she and her husband are waiting to both be cleared of the virus before trying again for a baby. She hopes others will be more fortunate.

"There are people who are not aware of the risks related to Zika," Satu told NBC. 

"If even one person avoids getting infected with Zika while pregnant, that's good for me."