Microcephaly has been in the news lately because of its confirmed connection to the Zika virus. The Zika virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but it can also be passed between sexual partners. Because of the prevalence of that particular mosquito, the Zika virus has been spreading rapidly throughout warm regions of South and Central America, and, with warmer months on the horizon, the virus is poised to spread across North America as well. Doctors in Brazil first drew a connection between Zika and microcephaly when they noticed an uptick in the developmental condition. But what is microcephaly?
According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, microcephaly is a birth defect that causes a baby's head to be "smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age." It can also cause brain development and cognitive issues. It can vary in severity, with complications including seizures, intellectual disabilities, problems with movement and balance, hearing loss, vision issues, and trouble eating and swallowing. These issues can be mitigated, but most are lifelong. Severe microcephaly can be life-threatening.
Microcephaly can have a number of causes. Rubella, toxoplasmosis, severe malnutrition, and exposure to alcohol, drugs, or toxic chemicals can all lead to some level of microcephaly, as can exposure to the Zika virus during pregnancy. All of these factors somehow affect the blood supply to the baby's brain during development, which leads to complications.
Only recently has the link between Zika and microcephaly been confirmed. Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC, told The Guardian, "There is no longer any doubt that Zika causes microcephaly." While countries have been cautious in the severity of their travel warnings, especially to pregnant women, they can now take a firmer stance. Part of the mounting evidence for the connection was that traces of the Zika virus were recently found in the brain tissue and spinal fluid of babies with microcephaly.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for microcephaly, but, according to the CDC, there are treatment options. For mild microcephaly, babies may only need regular check-ups. More severe cases will need treatments to deal with associated symptoms, like developmental services, medications for seizures, and speech and physical therapy.
Though there have only been 350 cases of the Zika virus reported in the United States so far (and all linked to foreign travel), that number is expected to go up as temperatures rise. Al Jazeera reported that, according to the health ministry of Brazil, there have been 1,113 confirmed cases of microcephaly since October. For a condition that previously had been extremely rare, this is cause for concern. According to CBS News, U.S. health officials have asked Congress for $1.9 billion in funding to help fight Zika internationally and to be prepared for its spread to America. On Wednesday, House Republicans said they would most likely grant them some funds, but not until September.