The parents of babies born with microcephaly caused by the Zika virus are likely facing a lifetime of challenge and commitment.
It’s quite possible they will end up taking care of their developmentally delayed son or daughter for the rest of their lives.
In many instances, that adult child may not walk or even talk.
“It could become a very complicated life for those parents,” Dr. Stephen J. Lauer, associate professor and associate chair of pediatrics at the University of Kansas Medical Center, told Healthline. “It could be a real burden for those families.”
That sober reality is now in the spotlight at a New Jersey hospital.
Officials at Hackensack University Medical Center confirmed today that a child born there has Zika-linked microcephaly.
They said the 31-year-old mother contracted the virus while in Honduras and was admitted to the New Jersey medical center on Friday while visiting the United States.
Different Kind of Damage
Microcephaly isn’t all that rare.
There are an estimated 25,000 cases a year in the United States alone. They are caused by a number of factors.
Many of these children are born with small heads but have little or no brain damage.
However, Lauer pointed out, the severe microcephaly induced by the Zika virus is a far more serious situation.
Scientists have determined that the Zika virus attacks a certain type of developing brain cells. That’s why it only brings on mild flu-like symptoms in adults and children but causes devastating effects on fetuses whose brains are forming.
Lauer explained that in most microcephaly cases the small head doesn’t indicate whether there is any brain damage.
In Zika-induced microcephaly, however, the small head occurs because the brain isn’t fully developed.
What Lies Ahead
The future of the so-called “Zika babies” is still an unknown.
After all, there are only babies to study right now — no adults or even older children have the disease.
However, Lauer said, the indications are not promising.
He said the damage caused in utero by the Zika virus has stopped or severely curtailed the physical development of these infants.
He said it’s likely the brain-damaged babies will not sit up when normal infants do. They probably won’t crawl, walk, or talk when most children do either.
Many may be confined to wheelchairs and need to be fed and dressed, even into adulthood.
“It’s possible their cognitive development will never catch up,” Lauer said. “There are a lot of very serious concerns here.”
He added children with this condition will likely require a lot of therapy over the years. They also will probably be more “medically fragile.”
“These type of kids can get very sick,” he said.
Lauer noted the parental burden would be rough in the United States, even with all its medical services.
In Brazil, especially in rural areas where health services are limited, the toll on parents could be even tougher.
The seriousness of Zika-induced microcephaly prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to change its recommendations this week regarding the virus.
WHO officials said they are now encouraging people returning from areas where the Zika virus is prevalent to practice safe sex or abstain from sex for eight weeks.
Lauer said even that precaution may not be enough.
Scientists are pretty certain how long Zika stays in a person’s bloodstream, but they still don’t know for sure how long it remains in human semen.
In addition, a pregnant woman could be infected with the virus but not exhibit any symptoms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports there are 591 confirmed cases of Zika infection in the United States.
All of those are people who traveled abroad.
So far, the only case that has resulted in Zika-induced microcephaly is the one reported at the New Jersey hospital today.
In Brazil, the number of confirmed and suspected cases of microcephaly since October has now topped 5,000.