Zika Virus and Microcephaly: What to Know
The weather’s getting warmer and school is coming to a close. This can only mean one thing- summer is here! But with summer fun also comes those darn mosquitos. No doubt that by now you’ve heard of the Zika virus and its dangers, especially for pregnant women. Infection of the virus during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects for your child. Learn more about how the Zika virus and microcephaly, and how you can prevent getting infected.
Zika virus: knowing the basics
The Zika virus gives rise to what is known as Zika fever. Symptoms are usually mild, including joint pain, fever, rash, or conjunctivitis. The symptoms last about a week at most, and are are usually not serious enough to require hospitalization. In fact, many people don’t show symptoms of the virus, and may not even realize that they have it. And once you’ve been infected with the virus, you’re safe from future infections.
So where did it come from? The Zika virus is named after the Zika forest in Uganda, where it was originally discovered in 1947. For years, the virus infected those in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The virus was actually considered to be somewhat harmless, considering that most people didn’t show symptoms, or the symptoms weren’t severe enough to cause hospitalization. But the real problem began when people started noticing the dramatic increase in birth defects, especially in places like Brazil. Since then, its rapid and unpredictable spread has send public health officials in a frenzy.
The Zika virus and microcephaly
Microcephaly is a serious birth defect where the baby’s head is much smaller than usual. The small size indicates the lack of full brain development, which predicts developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, seizure, hearing and vision loss, and more. The severity of microcephaly can vary, but the more serious cases can be life-threatening.
How does this happen?
Like all other viruses, the Zika virus is able to survive in the body by inserting its genetic material into a host cell in our body. Once inside, the virus can use the cell’s machinery to make copies of its genes, so that new viruses can be made. In some cases, when the virus is replicated the host cell is destroyed.
When a fetus’ brain is developing, it expands enough to create pressure on the skull to cause it to expand. However, a virus can stop brain growth and cause the pressure to drop and the skull to collapse. Everything else continues to develop, but the baby’s head is much smaller than what it needs to be.
Mild cases of microcephaly typically won’t need any treatment or services, just careful monitoring of development. The more severe cases require treatment of lifelong conditions. Services provided early on can help reduce developmental and intellectual delays. Therapy can also be used to improve speech and physical impairments. In some cases, medications may be used to control seizures and other conditions.
How to prevent transmission of the Zika virus
Prevent getting mosquito bites
This seems like common sense, but it may be harder than you think. Mosquitos are everywhere, but you can take preventative steps to avoid the dreaded bites. Try to limit skin exposure by wearing long sleeve shirts and long pants. If you do have any skin exposed, use an Environmental Protection Agency approved insect repellant. These repellants are tested to make sure that they are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. You can also try to stay in places with air conditioners and window screens to keep the mosquitos out. Be sure to avoid areas where mosquitos like to stay and breed, such as containers of still water.
Avoid traveling to areas where the Zika virus is prevalent
If you’re planning a vacation before the baby comes, this is something to pay attention to. According to the CDC, Zika virus outbreaks occurred in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands before 2015. Since then, the outbreak has spread through many countries and territories. But fear not, you don’t have to completely cancel your vacation plans. Just be sure to check the CDC’s website for information about Zika virus in the area you’re visiting.
Practice safe sex
Aside from mosquito bites, the virus can be spread through sexual contact. If your partner has been in an area infected with Zika virus, be sure to use protection when having sex. The virus can spread before, during or after the infected person displays symptoms. If you’re not sure if your partner is infected, check with your doctor just to be safe.
Check with your doctor regularly
If you’ve traveled to an area infected with the Zika virus, or if you live in an area where its common, this is crucial. If you start to show signs of a rash, fever, joint pain and red eyes, consult with your doctor as soon as possible. The only way to know if your child will have any birth defects is to track its growth during the pregnancy. So even if you don’t feel sick, check in with your doctor every so often to make sure everything’s okay.
Jessica is a student studying neuroscience and psychology. She is fascinated with all things people, from the way our brains work to how we think. She is always looking for new things to learn, and is eager to help others be inspired.