Microcephaly is loosely defined as an abnormally small head, oftentimes associated with incomplete development of the brain. Sometimes the cause is known and sometimes it is not. This serious medical condition is being thrust into the spotlight after recent reports from Brazil that a virus, perhaps present in the drinking water, may be responsible for causing microcephaly in unborn babies.
What is Microcephaly?
Children with microcephaly have heads that are significantly below normal size for their age (typically well below the first percentile). There are several problems related to microcephaly, including abnormal brain development, intellectual disability, seizures and lower life expectancy.
Depending on the cause, a diagnosis of microcephaly may be made immediately after birth, or it may take a few months or years to determine if the head is growing properly. Scans of the brain, such as CT scans or MRIs, will help to determine whether there is cause for concern.
Microcephaly may be congenital or acquired. Congenital means it was present at birth. Acquired means that it manifested itself sometime after birth when head size is normal. Common acquired microcepahly is often secondary to hypoxia and/or ischemia around the time of birth. One example of congenital microcephaly is that seen from the Zika virus where the head size is small at birth.
What is Happening in Brazil?
In Rio de Janeiro, health officials are making a significant request, asking people to avoid pregnancy. The reason is simple—there are 2,975 reported cases of newborn microcephaly this year, compared with 147 last year. That is a jump of over twenty times. Among these 2,400 cases, there are 40 deaths being investigated.
In some states, like Pernambuco, there are high concentrations of microcephaly. There have been over 900 reported cases in that state, alone. There and elsewhere, doctors notice the rise in microcephaly, and deduced that it was related to an increase in the Zika virus. Mothers who had given birth to children with microcephaly often had symptoms of rash, headaches and fever early in pregnancy, just like others with the virus.
Zika has been seen in Africa and Asia, then spread in 2007 to Micronesia. In Brazil, it has been tentatively linked to foreign visitors from the 2014 FIFA World Cup and insects (particularly a mosquito called Aedes aegypti), which helped to spread it. Cases have also been seen recently in the United States. In adults, the flu-like symptoms are relatively mild.
Early research indicates that the Zika virus is not limited by the placental barrier, which is how it affects unborn children. Efforts in Brazil are now focused on reducing the virus-spreading mosquitos.
Certainly, pregnant women should take care in determining whether to travel to Brazil or other areas known to be dealing with the Zika virus. Though it has not been identified conclusively as the cause, the sheer numbers of affected babies indicated that something is wrong, and more information may be needed before safe travel is possible. If you have questions about acquired or congenital microcephaly, contact us at (440) 252-4399.