Zika-Linked Birth Defect and Lifelong Health Woes
But some with less severe brain defects may live a much more normal life, experts say
By Dennis Thompson
TUESDAY, Feb. 9, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- The thousands of babies born in Brazil with abnormally small heads and brains -- believed to be caused by infection in the womb with the Zika virus -- typically face a lifetime of health challenges, doctors say.
But not all are destined to a life of medical woes.
The Brazilian babies -- who may number more than 4,000 -- have the condition known as microcephaly. And in 85 percent to 90 percent of microcephaly cases, infants also suffer from stunted brain development, said Dr. Edward McCabe, senior vice president and medical director of the March of Dimes.
The severity of developmental disability depends largely on how badly the virus has stunted brain growth, said Dr. Ausim Azizi, chairman of neurology at Temple University's Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
"If the brain is really, really small, it's more likely the child will have severe disability," Azizi said. "If the brain is moderately small, the child likely will have less disability."
There is no cure for microcephaly. Most children born with the birth defect will struggle their entire lives, and some may require life-long care, said Michelle Kelly, a pediatric and neonatal nurse practitioner and an assistant professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
"Affected children will require early developmental intervention, physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, as well as daily medications to control seizures and other neuromuscular conditions," Kelly said.
And while it's yet to be proven that the mosquito-borne Zika virus is to blame for the wave of birth defects in Brazil, the pathogen appears to represent a public health emergency "with the potential to devastate the child, the family, and overwhelm the health and educational resources of communities worldwide," Kelly concluded.
From what researchers can tell so far about Brazil's microcephaly epidemic that began last spring, pregnant women in their first trimester appear to be at greatest risk from the Zika virus. First identified in Uganda in 1947, the virus only seems to pose a health threat to a pregnant woman and her fetus.