Women want to know reality of Zika-caused microcephaly

With more cases closer to home, the threat of Zika prompts more questions, especially about the danger to unborn babies who could develop microcephaly, for which no cure exists.

Babies with microcephaly—where the baby’s head is small and the brain doesn’t develop properly—can experience intelligence issues, developmental delays, vision and hearing loss, plus problems such as cerebral palsy and seizures.

Three pregnant women in Illinois have the Zika virus after travelling to areas where Zika is prevalent. Things are more serious in Florida where 15 people in the Miami area caught the virus from a mosquito bite—the first time a mosquito passed Zika to a person in the U.S. Zika spreads through mosquito bites and through sexual contact with infected people.

Franklyn Christensen, MD, Maternal Fetal Medicine Specialist at Carle, (pictured) warns women not to gamble with their health or their baby’s health.

“There is a chance the baby whose mother has Zika won’t have microcephaly, but researchers don’t know the exact odds,” Dr. Christensen said.

Using a sonogram, doctors can diagnose microcephaly as early as 18-20 weeks into pregnancy.

“If a pregnant woman acquires Zika, the timing of the sickness is important in determining what type of testing would be recommended. The microcephaly risk is just as real if mothers have the virus at conception or if they get the virus six months into pregnancy,” Dr. Christensen said.

“But, if a baby has microcephaly, all we can do is treat the child’s symptoms, and provide therapies to maximize development.”

So, what happens if a mother gives birth to a baby who has microcephaly?

Gail Kennedy, MD, pediatric neurologist, says they must first determine how the baby got microcephaly.

“We give the baby a physical exam, MRI and blood test. Sometimes microcephaly is a genetic condition,” Dr. Kennedy said.

She added, “With a detailed diagnosis,  we can then determine how severe the microcephaly is. Then, we can help the family plan for their future and help the therapist treat the baby.”

Charles Morton, MD, is fellowship trained in developmental and behavioral pediatrics. He says Carle’s pediatric specialty clinics offer many services to help.

"While microcephaly is a major concern for the family, we will help connect them to the resources that the whole family may need. We serve all families in need by identifying the medical, educational and community resources available for current and future needs," Dr. Morton added.

Therapy can include:

  • Physical therapy, to help improve strength, movement and coordination
  • Occupational therapy, to help build comfort and confidence performing day-to-day tasks
  • Speech therapy, to help improve language, voice and swallowing skills
  • Psychological counseling, to help the children adjust to any disability he or she might have, and to also help the families deal with any potential behavioral difficulties.

For the first time ever, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week issued a travel alert for a location in the U.S., encouraging women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant to avoid the Miami area.

How should the CDC and Zika concerns impact family planning?

Christensen says the CDC and Carle recommend:

  • Women with Zika should wait at least eight weeks before trying to get pregnant.
  • Couples where men have Zika should wait at least six months after symptoms.
  • Women and men who live in or frequently travel to areas with Zika should talk to their healthcare provider about family planning testing for the virus

Babies acquire microcephaly from many causes, but currently Zika has everyone’s attention.

The best option is to avoid contracting Zika. While a minor illness to adults, it can have a serious and lifelong impact on an infant and the child’s family.