By Dr. Maria Simbra


PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – While heads come in all shapes and sizes, a baby born with a head much smaller than statistical norms is considered to have microcephaly.

This suggests something has happened during pregnancy — drugs, alcohol, radiation exposure, or an infection. Additionally, a small head often means a small brain.

“And is this a brain that will be able to grow after the baby is born? Or is this a brain that’s pretty much done growing?” says Dr. Jennifer Kloesz of Magee’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Doctors check bloodwork and brain imaging, and they look for infections such as toxoplasmosis, rubella, cytomegalovirus, and herpes — the more common reasons to see this birth defect of a small head.

Zika virus may soon be added to that list.

“It sure looks suspicious. We have a whole bunch of babies in Brazil who have very small heads, and we have a whole bunch of people in Brazil with the Zika virus,” says Dr. Kloesz.

In a local, busy academic neonatal intensive care unit, they see about two cases of microcephaly a month. But, they still look for the usual causes and associations, not so much Zika, unless the mom’s travel history raises a concern.

“I think if we end up proving there’s a causation there, it’s very concerning. Because I think Zika is only going to continue to spread, and it looks like the numbers keep going higher and higher,” says Dr. Kloesz.

Unfortunately, young healthy pregnant women may not even realize they have the virus, especially early in pregnancy when it poses the danger. And because this is so new, we don’t know what this means for these children with microcephaly.

“We know those babies are at very high risk for seizures and just problems with learning overall, but we don’t know exactly what those problems are going to look like,” Dr. Kloesz says.

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Dr. Maria Simbra