Microcephaly is a rare nervous system disorder where a baby’s head size is abnormally small when compared with other babies of the same age and sex. ‘Micro’ means small and ‘cephaly’ refers to the head. Most children with microcephaly have a small brain and intellectual disability. Microcephaly can occur at birth or may develop a few years after birth. One baby in several thousand is born with microcephaly.
Causes Of Microcephaly
The exact reason for microcephaly is difficult to ascertain. Microcephaly arising from inherited genes is something beyond our control. But, the disorder occurring due to habits and lifestyle of the mother during pregnancy is something that can be controlled to an extent. Some prominent causes of microcephaly are:
- Exposure to hazardous chemicals or substances
- Methylmercury and lead poisoning
- Lack of proper vitamins and nutrients in the diet
- Cytomegalovirus, rubella, varicella infection, chickenpox, Zika, viral and parasite infections
- Drug (prescription or illegal), smoking or alcohol consumption
- Untreated phenylketonuria
- Brain injuries, lack of oxygen or infection
- Spine or brain defects
- Hemorrhage or stroke in the newborn
Types Of Microcephaly
- Congenital microcephaly – Passed down through families, caused by defects in genes linked to early brain development.
- Acquired microcephaly – Child’s brain comes in contact with something that harms its growth and development.
Symptoms And Signs Of Microcephaly
In mild cases, children may have a small head but no other problems and the child’s head grows as it gets older. However, it will remain smaller than what’s considered normal. Some children born with microcephaly have normal intelligence, while others may develop convulsions, and suffer physical and learning disabilities as they grow older. Other symptoms include,
- Balance and coordination problems
- Developmental delays (delayed sitting, standing, walking)
- Trouble swallowing and problems with feeding
- Hearing loss
- Short height
- Speech problems
- Vision problems
The symptoms of microcephaly may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child’s doctor for a diagnosis.
The most reliable way to assess whether a baby has microcephaly is to measure head circumference 24 hours after birth, compare the value with WHO growth standards, and continue to measure the rate of head growth in early infancy. The doctor may inquire about the family history of microcephaly, other medical problems or developmental milestones.
- Microcephaly may be diagnosed before birth by prenatal ultrasound
- It may or may not be evident even by ultrasound performed in the third trimester or earlier in pregnancy
- It may be diagnosed at birth or later during infancy
- The baby’s head circumference is much smaller than normal
- Microcephaly can be associated with other problems like intellectual disability
- Other diagnostic tests include X-ray, CT scan, MRI scan, blood tests and urine tests
Caring For A Child With Microcephaly
Microcephaly is a life-long disorder that is neither treatable nor correctable. The extent of the problem is usually not fully understood immediately after birth, but may be revealed as the child grows and develops. Caring for a child with this disorder includes,
- Preventing or minimizing deformities
- Maximizing the child’s capabilities at home and in the community
- Encouraging the child to strengthen its self-esteem
- Promoting as much independence as possible
- Monitoring the development of the head through regular diagnostic tests
- Providing education and guidance to improve the child’s health and well-being
- Counseling on the recurrence risks for the disorder and any available testing
Though microcephaly cannot be cured, some precautionary measures may prevent it. The only thing you can do is to care for the child and help the child to cope with the disorder. Some children with this disorder can lead a normal life with support from family, friends and doctors. Talking to others, who are in similar situations can help us better understand the problem and find suitable solutions.