Don’t let Scumbag Steve to Mosquito win. Don’t share conspiracy theories about microcephaly.
Like a lot of couples, my wife and I have waited to start a family until the time was right for us, which just so happens to be now-ish. Unfortunately the right time for us has coincided with the spread of the Zika virus in North America, a virus that shows an association between infection with it during pregnancy and an increased risk of microcephaly (reduced brain/head size) in newborns. The Zika virus is not a new virus from a historical perspective, however, the newly accepted correlation with microcephaly seems to have given the virus a significant amount of media attention.
For any expectant parent – or couples planning on getting pregnant, like my wife and me – the possibility of a Zika infection is terrifying. My wife and I are the kind of people who like to arm ourselves with information, so let’s dive into Zika virus infections and take a look at some facts and figures.
With the increasing news coverage of Zika and it’s reported link to the birth defect microcephaly we’ve received a number of reader questions about microcephaly and what it actually means for children born with the condition. We reached out to infectious disease specialist, Dr. Judy Stone, to answer some of your questions.
What does microcephaly actually mean (Is the brain small, does it stop growing at a certain stage, is part of the brain missing)?
Microcephaly literally means an abnormally small head. Both the skull and brain are abnormally small with microcephaly, and X-ray studies often show abnormal calcified areas in the brain and lack of normal development.
Is Zika the only way a baby can be born with microcephaly or are there other risk factors?
Microcephaly has been associated with many infections as well as genetic abnormalities, malnutrition, or exposure to certain toxins. It already happens very rarely in the U.S. due to the level of nutrition and prenatal care most women receive (although even with good nutrition and proper prenatal care, microcephaly can still occur due to certain genetic factors or infections). Even in Brazil, the “epidemic” of this birth defect is thought to be <1%. Some researchers think that some of the sudden apparent increase reflects changes in reporting rather than new illnesses. It’s also important to know that the link right now is just correlated with Zika, there hasn’t yet been a cause and effect relationship proven, but it’s enough to raise alarm bells.
The Zika virus has been in the news a lot lately because it’s been linked to a cluster of cases of microcephaly in Brazil and Columbia. Microcephaly is a rare birth defect where the fetus’ brain does not develop fully in utero, and as a result, the baby is born with an abnormally small head and multiple neurological disorders.
Public health officials have been aware of Zika for decades, however, it was only believed to only cause mild flu-like symptoms with few, if any, lasting negative outcomes. The virus is spread by mosquitoes and recently cases as far north as Mexico, Hawaii and Puerto Rico have concerned public health officials in North America.
On January 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a level-two travel alert for Latin America and the Caribbean, with a special note for pregnant women to avoid those areas. Since then we’ve been asked about Zika by a number of readers. We reached out to Dr. Waleed Al-Salem, a tropical medicine specialist and father based in Liverpool, England, to have him answer your questions.