Microcephaly: In The Shadow of Zika

When a baby was born recently in New Jersey with Zika virus-related microcephaly, it put that rare neurological condition into the spotlight, and the headlines. Pre-Zika, microcephaly affected approximately 1 in 666,666, or 407, people in the U.S.

Children afflicted with microcephaly have heads significantly smaller than the heads of other children of the same age and sex. A child with more severe microcephaly may also have a backward-sloping forehead. Sometimes detected at birth, microcephaly usually is the result of the brain developing abnormally in the womb or not growing as it should after birth.

In addition to Zika, microcephaly can be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. These include:

  • Chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down syndrome;
  • Infections of the fetus during pregnancy, such as toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus, German measles and chickenpox;
  • Craniosynostosis, or the premature fusing of the joints between the bony plates that form an infant's skull keeps the brain from growing;
  • Cerebral anoxia – the decreased oxygen to the fetal brain;
  • Severe malnutrition;
  • Exposure to drugs, alcohol or certain toxic chemicals in the womb.

Children with microcephaly often have developmental issues. Generally there's no treatment for microcephaly, but early intervention with supportive therapies, such as speech and occupational therapies, may help enhance your child's development and improve quality of life.

Your doctor will undoubtedly detect microcephaly upon the birth of your baby. If, however, you believe the condition was missed, or that your baby's head is not growing as it should, bring it to your doctor's attention.

What is important for parents to know is that children with microcephaly can be of normal intelligence. Symptoms other than smaller than normal heads may include:

  • Developmental delays, such as in speech and movement
  • Difficulties with coordination and balance
  • Dwarfism or short stature
  • Facial distortions
  • Hyperactivity
  • Mental retardation
  • Seizures

There is typically no treatment for microcephaly, with the exception of surgery for craniosynostosis. Your child's doctor may prescribe medications to ameliorate some of the complications of microcephaly, such as seizures.