Facts about Microcephaly
One of the biggest concerns about the Zika virus outbreak is a potential link to microcephaly in fetuses whose mothers are infected with the disease. While the World Health Organization (WHO) and other global health care entities are determining if this condition and other neurological disorders are connected to the virus, it has raised many questions about microcephaly.
What is Microcephaly?
Microcephaly is a birth defect that causes a baby’s head size to be much smaller than normal. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains that may not have developed properly. Infants with this condition often experience cognitive delays and neurological problems.
Causes of Microcephaly
There are a number of possible causes for microcephaly. In most cases, it is caused by an inherited defect in a gene that interferes with the brain’s growth in utero. There are some factors affecting the mother that may contribute to the baby developing microcephaly, including:
- Substance abuse
- Inadequate nutrition
- Untreated phenylketonuria (PKU)
- Exposure to certain viruses – especially chickenpox, rubella (German measles) or cytomegalovirus
- Exposure to toxic chemicals
A baby can be born healthy, but then acquire microcephaly because of:
- Brain infection
- Lack of oxygen to the brain
- Brain injury
Microcephaly can also be related to chromosomal disorders, such as Down syndrome and certain neurometabolic disorders.
Possible Link with the Zika Virus
The current Zika virus outbreak has uncovered a possible link with microcephaly in babies born to mothers infected with the virus. In early 2015, the virus was first recognized in northeastern Brazil. In September, a sharp increase in the number of reported cases of microcephaly was noted in areas affected by the outbreak.
From October 2015 through January 2016, there have been over 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly in Brazil, representing a twenty-fold increase in cases from the same time period a year ago. The Zika virus has been identified in tissues from infants born with microcephaly, and officials are currently in the process of confirming cases that have been reported.
Occurrences of microcephaly
Microcephaly is not a common condition. In the United States, it is estimated that microcephaly ranges from 2-12 babies per 10,000 live births. There are about 25,000 microcephaly diagnoses in the United States annually.
Microcephaly can be diagnosed during the pregnancy or after the birth of the baby. During pregnancy, it can be diagnosed during a late second trimester or early third trimester ultrasound.
Issues Resulting from Microcephaly
Babies with microcephaly develop a wide range of problems, depending on the severity of their condition. Those affected may have some or all of the issues below, and they can range from being mild to severe. Microcephaly has been linked to the following:
- Developmental delays (problems with speech and other developmental milestones such as sitting, standing and walking)
- Intellectual disability, affecting the ability to learn and function
- Issues with movement and balance
- Dwarfism or short stature
- Facial distortions
- Feeding problems
- Hearing loss
- Vision problems
Babies diagnosed with microcephaly will need close monitoring and follow-ups with their health care provider to track growth and development, in order to determine necessary therapies and treatments.
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