The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that the Zika virus, spread by mosquito bites, causes microcephaly. With the increase in reported Zika infections in the United States, namely southern Florida, Mark Pasternack, MD, chief of Pediatric Infectious Disease and Ganeswaran Mochida, MD, attending pediatric neurologist in the Pediatric Neurology Unit, answer common questions about microcephaly and the current situation.
Q: What is microcephaly?
A: Microcephaly is a birth defect that affects the growth of a baby’s brain and skull, so that at the time of birth the child’s head is much smaller than that of another infant of the same age and gender. The condition can indicate that the baby’s brain has not grown as much as it should have, leading to intellectual disability.
Q. What causes microcephaly?
A. Microcephaly may be associated with genetic problems or syndromes that run in families, or occur as the result of fetal viral infections such as rubella or cytomegalovirus (CMV). In addition, microcephaly may develop following exposure to harmful substances such as alcohol; certain medications and radiation during the fetal development
Recent reports stemming from Brazil suggest that the Zika virus, a virus spread by the Aedes mosquito, is linked to increased cases of microcephaly and other severe birth defects. Although many infected adults have no symptoms, Zika can cause mild flu-like symptoms such as fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis.
Q: What are the symptoms of microcephaly? Are these symptoms always present?
A: Not all individuals with microcephaly will show symptoms, but a wide spectrum of problems, such as seizures, poor feeding ability, high-pitched cry and movement issues along with developmental and intellectual disabilities have been reported in the setting of microcephaly due to prenatal exposure to Zika virus.
Q: What treatment options are available? Is there a cure?
A: There is no cure for most forms of microcephaly. It is important to start multidisciplinary intervention early because it helps maximize the child's developmental potential. Medical and/or surgical treatment may be available for complications of microcephaly, such as seizures and cerebral palsy.
Q: When can a child be diagnosed with microcephaly?
A: Microcephaly can be suspected at the time of prenatal ultrasound as well as at birth.
Q: With the growing rate of Zika infections, is there anything I can do to protect my unborn child?
A. At this time, The Centers for Disease Control has recommended avoiding travel to areas where there is a risk of Zika infection, minimizing exposure to mosquito bites in high risk areas through appropriate dress and use of insect repellant, and avoiding having unprotected sex with individuals who have traveled to areas with increased risk of Zika virus transmission for up to 6 months, since Zika virus can be transmitted by semen at the time of sexual activity .
For more information about Zika and potential pregnancy complications, visit our Zika and Pregnancy page.